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The front (left) and back (right) of a 3000-year-old copper mask. Small holes near the edges suggest the mask could have been attached with threads. Someone tried to repair the fracture near the left eye—note the holes near it.
The front (left) and back (right) of a 3000-year-old copper mask. Small holes near the edges suggest the mask could have been attached with threads. Someone tried to repair the fracture near the left eye—note the holes near it.
Cortés & Scattolin in Antiquity, 2017

Rainy Season in the Andes Reveals the Oldest Known Copper Death Mask

The front (left) and back (right) of a 3000-year-old copper mask. Small holes near the edges suggest the mask could have been attached with threads. Someone tried to repair the fracture near the left eye—note the holes near it.
The front (left) and back (right) of a 3000-year-old copper mask. Small holes near the edges suggest the mask could have been attached with threads. Someone tried to repair the fracture near the left eye—note the holes near it.
Cortés & Scattolin in Antiquity, 2017

A good downpour can be an archaeologist’s best friend. A recent rainy season in the northwest corner of Argentina revealed an ancient copper mask, green with rust, that had been hidden in the dirt for the last 3000 years. It's the oldest known copper artifact in the Andes—the longest continental mountain range on earth—and one of the oldest metalworks ever found in South America. Its discovery complicates the long-standing idea that metalworking began on the continent in Peru, thousands of miles north.

The mask looks a bit like a Jack-o’-lantern, with a little triangle for a nose and small openings for the eyes and mouth. Residents of the village of La Quebrada stumbled across the mask, as well as some bones, sticking out of the dirt in 2005. Shortly after, archaeologists came in to excavate the site, and they found that the mask wasn’t resting on just one burial, but was covering a collective grave with 14 bodies.

“We don’t know exactly what the actual meaning of the mask was in the context of this pre-Hispanic society,” archaeologist Leticia Inés Cortés, of Argentina’s National Council for Scientific and Technical Research, tells Mental Floss. Ancestor cults are very ancient and widespread in the region, Cortés says, so the mask could be a representation of the ancestor of the group and the rest of their community. Later DNA tests might reveal the relationships between the deceased.

The burial site was located near the 1900-year-old settlement of Bordo Marcial. However, radiocarbon dates showed that the tomb and mask are much older—dating back to 3000 years ago, before any villages even existed in the region.

During this time period, people in the area were just beginning to leave their hunter-gatherer way of life. But even before they truly settled down and started farming, they apparently figured out how to take advantage of the rich copper sources in the region that are still mined today.

Cortés, who described the mask in a new report in the journal Antiquity, tells Mental Floss that there’s been a tendency to treat Peru as the epicenter for technological innovation in the region. This mask, meanwhile, shows “that there is no one place for technological innovation, but many, including this region of the southern Andes.”

In other words, it’s not like a few geniuses in the central Andes figured out how to melt down metal to make beautiful objects and their invention spread from there.

Archaeologists might have previously assumed that cultures only started making fine metal objects when they had elite ruling classes and a capacity to create agricultural surpluses to free up time for skilled workers. But the mask from Argentina also builds on other evidence from the region demonstrating that displays of wealth might pre-date sedentary life.

“The discovery underscores the idea that social complexity—that is, a hierarchical social order—is not required for the emergence of early metal working,” says Mark Aldenderfer, an archaeologist at the University of California, Merced, who wasn’t involved in the study.

Aldenderfer previously discovered the oldest gold artifacts in the Americas, in the form of a necklace dating back to 4000 years in Peru near Lake Titicaca, when people in that region were just starting to settle into villages.

“The circulation of metal artifacts and their interment with the dead suggest that new forms of wealth accumulation and networking began to emerge during this transitional period,” Aldenderfer tells Mental Floss. "I suspect that the copper mask from Bordo Marcial reflects a similar social context."

nextArticle.image_alt|e
The front (left) and back (right) of a 3000-year-old copper mask. Small holes near the edges suggest the mask could have been attached with threads. Someone tried to repair the fracture near the left eye—note the holes near it.
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Humans Might Have Practiced Brain Surgery on Cows 5000 Years Ago
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a site in France containing hundreds of cow skeletons dating back 5000 to 5400 years. The sheer number wasn't surprising—human agriculture in that part of the world was booming by 3000 BCE. What perplexed scientists was something uncovered there a few decades later: a cow skull bearing a thoughtfully drilled hole. Now, a team of researchers has released evidence that suggests the hole is an early example of animal brain surgery.

Fernando Ramírez Rozzi, a paleontologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, and Alain Froment, an anthropologist at the Museum of Mankind in Paris, published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. After comparing the opening to the holes chiseled into the skulls of humans from the same era, they found the bones bore some striking similarities. They didn't show any signs of fracturing from blunt force trauma; rather, the hole in the cow skull, like those in the human skulls, seemed to have been carved out carefully using a tool made for exactly that purpose. That suggests that the hole is evidence of the earliest known veterinary surgery performed by humans.

Trepanation, or the practice of boring holes into human skulls, is one of the oldest forms of surgery. Experts are still unsure why ancient humans did this, but the level of care that went into the procedures suggests that the surgery was likely used to treat sick patients while they were still alive. Why a person would perform this same surgery on a cow, however, is harder to explain.

The authors present a few theories, the first being that these ancient brain surgeons were treating a sick cow the same way they might treat a sick human. If a cow was suffering from a neural disease like epilepsy, perhaps they though that cutting a hole in its head would relieve whatever was agitating the brain. The cow would have needed to be pretty special to warrant such an effort when there were hundreds of healthy cows living on the same plot of land, as evidenced by the skeletons it was found with.

Another possible explanation was that whoever operated on the cow did so as practice to prepare them for drilling into the heads of live humans one day. "Cranial surgery requires great manual dexterity and a complete knowledge of the anatomy of the brain and vessel distribution," the authors write in the study. "It is possible that the mastery of techniques in cranial surgery shown in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods was acquired through experimentation on animals."

Either way, the bovine patient didn't live to see the results of the procedure: The bone around the hole hadn't healed at all, which suggests the cow either died during surgery or wasn't alive to begin with.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
The front (left) and back (right) of a 3000-year-old copper mask. Small holes near the edges suggest the mask could have been attached with threads. Someone tried to repair the fracture near the left eye—note the holes near it.
Stefan Sauer, AFP/Getty Images
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
13-Year-Old Amateur Archaeologist Discovers the Buried Treasure of a Danish King
Stefan Sauer, AFP/Getty Images
Stefan Sauer, AFP/Getty Images

In January, amateur archaeologist René Schön and his 13-year-old student Luca Malaschnitschenko were scouring a field on an island in the Baltic Sea when something small and silver triggered their metal detector. What they initially thought was aluminum trash turned out to be a coin from a 10th-century treasure hoard that once belonged to a Danish king, AP reports.

Schön and Malaschnitschenko discovered the site on the eastern German island of Ruegen, but it wasn't until mid-April that state archaeologists uncovered the hoard in its entirety. Both of the amateur archaeologists were invited back to take part in the final dig, which spanned 4300 square feet.

The treasure trove includes pearls, jewelry, a Thor's hammer, and about 100 silver coins, with the oldest dating back to 714 CE and the most recent to 983 CE. Experts believe the collection once belonged to the Viking-born Danish king Harald "Harry" Bluetooth, who abandoned his Norse faith and brought Christianity to Denmark.

Pile of silver coins.
Stefan Sauer, AFP/Getty Images

Threatened by a rebellion led by his son, the king fled Denmark in the late 980s—around the same time the silver hoard was buried—and took refuge in Pomerania, on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea. He died there in 987.

Harry Bluetooth derived his nickname from his bluish dead tooth. Today his legacy lives on in the Swedish Bluetooth technology that bears his name. The symbol for the tech also uses the runic characters for his initials: HB.

According to the archaeologists who worked there, the dig site represents the largest trove of Bluetooth coins ever discovered in the southern Baltic region.

[h/t AP]

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