Physical Anthropology

Introduction to the Bronze Age



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The Bronze Age is the period between the Stone Age and the Iron Age. It reached different parts of the world at contrastingly different times from around 5000 BC onwards, though curiously never touched parts of Southern Africa at all, which went straight from the Stone to Iron Ages. It was the time of the earliest development of metallurgy, when the smelting of metals allowed great advances to be made in the quality and functionality of both tools and weapons.

It is impossible to determine where bronze was originally invented and the likelihood is that it developed independently in a great many locations. As mined copper ores are never pure and contain to some extent traces of arsenic or perhaps tin, it may be that simple trial and error on the part of the smiths finally led to the discovery of the best blend of materials. Bronze is specifically defined as any alloy which contains 85-95% copper with the other 5-15% being composed chiefly of tin or arsenic. Artefacts discovered in Central Asia from the fourth millennium BC are the earliest known examples of tin bronzes while arsenical bronzes are not evidenced until the following millennium in the area around the Caucasus mountains.

It was also a time of great social upheaval and the establishment of the earliest international trade routes. In the Near East, although arsenical bronze was common, an increasing demand for tin led to it being imported from as far afield as Central Europe and even Great Britain, the tin mines of Cornwall in the extreme south-west of England in fact thriving from this point onwards up until the late nineteenth century AD.

As a great amount of wood was required to fuel the smelting process - as well as to build ships for trade and military purposes - the deforestation of the Near East eventually became a significant problem, particularly in Mesopotamia (where unauthorised tree felling carried the death penalty!) and what is modern Greece. Wood had to be imported from as far away as Italy and the Balkans and the heavy forestation of Cyprus at the time soon secured the island's importance as a trade centre for centuries to come.

The Bronze Age also saw the earliest known examples of writing, livestock farms and recognisable burial chambers and rituals, among many other innovations, before it finally gave way to The Iron Age circa one thousand BC.

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