Old Copper Complex Flourishes in North America Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

A series of related Archaic Indian cultures in the western Great Lakes known as the Old Copper complex mined copper to produce tools and ornaments.

Summary of Event

As early as the late 1800’s, historians and archaeologists began to note the collection of copper tools and ornaments from plowed fields and exposed soils in areas of Wisconsin and Michigan. Some early scholars thought these artifacts were the products of lost races or cultures that preceded the North American Indians. However, as more and more were discovered and as archaeology advanced the understanding of North American prehistory, it became clear that Great Lakes Indians had developed a copper-based metal technology as early as 4000 b.c.e.

Between approximately 4000 and 1000 b.c.e., a number of Archaic tradition Indian groups in the western Great Lakes of North America mined and collected nearly pure copper in the Lake Superior Basin and adjacent areas. Archaeologists refer to these early copper-working cultures as the Old Copper complex. These early metalsmiths used hot- and cold-hammering, grinding, and polishing techniques to produce a variety of copper tools and ornaments. They used copper along with stone and bone technology to produce artifacts for survival and for trade.

Thousands of heavy copper tools have been recovered in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ontario. These tools include spear points, knives, awls, harpoons, fishhooks, axes, chisels, celts, and needles. Additionally, copper ornaments have also been recovered from this region including beads, bangles, and bracelets.

In the 1940’s, 1950’s, and 1960’s, a number of Old Copper-related cemeteries were professionally excavated in Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and on the Ottawa River in Quebec. These sites produced the first undisturbed archaeological evidence about these early peoples. The data collected from these sites and analyses of the surface-collected copper tools suggest that Old Copper complex Indians were hunter-gatherer cultures. They made a living by exploiting a wide variety of terrestrial game, migratory waterfowl, fish, and plants.

Old Copper cemeteries indicate that early in the cultural sequence, copper was used to produce primarily tools for subsistence-related tasks. Copper artifacts were also traded to cultures outside the region for materials such as marine shells from the southeastern United States and exotic flaked stone tools from the Ohio River Valley and the plains.

Early Old Copper complex sites, such as the Oconto Old Copper Cemetery in Oconto County, Wisconsin (dating to 4000-3000 b.c.e.), show evidence of a relatively egalitarian society. Analysis of the artifacts found with burials indicates that the vast majority of the artifacts were tools. Although there is evidence of trade for marine shells, most of the artifacts were probably produced from local materials. The Oconto site yielded a variety of copper, stone, bone, and shell artifacts. One of the most notable artifacts is a musical instrument or whistle made from the wing bone of a Tundra swan.

Later Old Copper complex burial sites indicate that by 1500 to 1000 b.c.e., there was a gradual increase in the manufacturing of copper jewelry and in the amount of trade inside and outside the Great Lakes region. At the Reigh site in Winnebago County, Wisconsin, archaeologists recovered graves containing copper projectile points, knives, axes, a variety of bead necklaces, and even a copper feathered headdress. Many of these objects or grave goods can be interpreted as status markers. This pattern suggests that some members of this society had differential access to trade and valuable resources. By this time, a new burial ceremonial practice emerged: the extensive use of red ocher or ground hematite to cover the dead.

By 1000 b.c.e., copper tool production was in decline. This decline is what defines the terminus of the Old Copper complex. Although some copper tools continued to be made by later cultures, many of the large socketed projectile points are not found in later periods.

Although archaeologists have excavated a number of Old Copper cemeteries, few habitation sites have been discovered. There are still a great many unanswered questions about these first metalworking native cultures of the western Great Lakes.


The Old Copper complex represents the oldest metalworking in North America. Between 4000 and 1000 b.c.e., Native American cultures of the western Great Lakes developed a complex metal-smithing technology that was used to hot and cold hammer tools and ornaments from nearly pure copper. This cultural complex also led to the development of a far-reaching trade system that connected cultures of the Great Lakes with areas as far away as the plains and the Gulf coast.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Birmingham, Robert A., Carol I. Mason, and James B. Stoltman, eds. Wisconsin Archaeology. Vol. 78. Milwaukee, Wis.: The Wisconsin Archaeological Society, 1997. Contains a chapter on each archaeological tradition recognized in Wisconsin. The Archaic tradition chapter by James B. Stoltman contains an excellent summary of the Old Copper complex.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Halsey, John R., ed. Retrieving Michigan’s Buried Past: The Archaeology of the Great Lakes State. Bulletin 64. Bloomfield Hills, Mich.: Cranbrook Institute of Science, 1999. Contains a chapter on each archaeological tradition recognized in Michigan.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martin, Susan R. Wonderful Power: The Story of Ancient Copper Working in the Lake Superior Basin. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1999. Outstanding summary of the history of Native American copper working in the western Great Lakes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martin, Susan R., and Thomas C. Pleger. “The Complex Formerly Known as a Culture: The Taxonomic Puzzle of ‘Old Copper.’” In Taming the Taxonomy: Toward a New Understanding of Great Lakes Archaeology, edited by Ronald F. Williamson and Christopher M. Watts. Toronto: Eastend Books and the Ontario Archaeological Society, 1999. A summary of the history of research concerning the Old Copper complex and a discussion of how it should be viewed in relation to today’s archaeological classification system.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mason, Ronald J. Great Lakes Archaeology. New York: Academic Press, 1981. A classic work summarizing the archaeology of the Great Lakes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pleger, Thomas C. “Old Copper and Red Ocher Social Complexity.” Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 25, no. 2 (2000): 169-190. This article is a summary of a comparative analysis of burial patterns at the Oconto Old Copper Cemetery, Oconto, Wisconsin and the Riverside Red Ocher Cemetery, Menominee County, Michigan.

Categories: History Content