The oldest metal object on Earth, copper awl, has been discovered in a woman's grave in the Middle East, a new study reports.
This artifact reveals that metals were exchanged across hundreds of miles in this region more than 6,000 years ago, centuries earlier than previously thought, according to researchers.
Archaeologists unearthed a cone-shaped piece of copper awl in a woman's gravesite in Tel Tsaf, an archaeological site in Israel located near the Jordan River and Israel's border with Jordan. Tel Tsaf used to be a village from about 5100 B.C. to 4600 B.C., and previous findings dug up at this site suggest that the community was once a wealthy international center of commerce.
That notion is supported by the elaborateness of the ancient woman's grave. Aside from the 1.6-inch-long awl, set in a wooden handle, she had a belt around her waist made of 1,668 ostrich-egg shell beads and several large stones covered the grave, suggesting that the 40-year-old deceased was special.
"The appearance of the item in a woman's grave, which represents one of the most elaborate burials we've seen in our region from that era, testifies to both the importance of the awl and the importance of the woman, and it's possible that we are seeing here the first indications of social hierarchy and complexity," study co-author Danny Rosenberg, an archaeologist at the University of Haifa in Israel, said in a statement.
But while the grave, beaded belt and woman's skeleton were all previously reported in scientific journals, the little awl was only reported on recently, after scientists analyzed its chemical components.
The awl was found to be made of copper, and though researchers still don't know what it was used for, its discovery is important because until now, researchers believed that area residents began to use metals only in the Late Chalcolithic period. This finding moves back the appearance of metal in this region by several hundred years, as early as 5100 B.C.
Chemical analysis also showed that the copper probably came from about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) away, in the Caucasus region. This discovery suggests people in this area originally imported metal artifacts and only later created them locally.
The grave also shows "the complexity of the people living in Tel Tsaf around 7,000 years before present," Rosenberg told Live Science. "The find suggests that the people of Tel Tsaf were engaged in or at least had acquaintance with advanced technology, metallurgy, hundreds of years before the spread of copper items in the southern Levant."
The scientists detailed their findings in the journal PLOS ONE.
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