Mining for precious ores and resources predates efficiency and safety boosting tools essential for mines of today such as mine planning softwares and AutoCAD 3D modeling platforms. After all, mankind has been extracting ores and other raw materials from the Earth for a millennia. It’s a staggeringly ancient industry of our species, pursued with strenuous and often dangerous effort to supply those precious minerals, metals, pigments, and other fundamentals of building, manufacturing, and ritual we can’t otherwise produce.
Here we’ll survey some of the oldest documented mines on the globe, from the weathered mountains of southern Africa to the petrified lava flows of Michigan’s Lake Superior coast. All demonstrate the remarkable ingenuity of the human animal when it comes to sourcing and using natural resources, as well as the antiquity of our native understanding of mining geology.
1. Chert Mines
It’s not surprising that the contenders for the world’s oldest mine hail from Africa, the birthplace of humanity. The Guinness World Records gives the nod to the Middle Paleolithic chert mines of Nazlet Sabaha (or Safaha), a site on the western banks of the Nile River in Egypt. Evidence suggests mining was going on at least 50,000 years ago; the Guinness register pushes the date back to the vicinity of 100,000 years. Another site nearly 100 miles north, Nazlet Khater, appears to have been utilized as a chert source roughly 33,000 years ago in the Upper Paleolithic.
Chert, a sedimentary rock of legendary hardness, was used by early humans for tool-making and also to strike sparks for fire.
2. The Lion Cavern
Vying with the chert quarries of the Nile Valley as the oldest mine in the world is the Lion Cavern in the Ngwenya Mountains of western Swaziland. Today the site of large-scale iron-ore extraction, the Lion Cavern (commonly called the Bomvu Ridge) appears to have provided a rich source of hematite and specularite for Middle Stone Age peoples as long ago as 43,000 years.
From hematite, prehistoric miners—who wielded well-crafted dolerite tools—derived red ochre, a pigment widely used in the Middle and Late Stone Ages in Africa for burials as well as rock paintings. According to the Swaziland National Trust Commission, the miners’ main interest may have actually been the specularite, which had significant ritualistic and cosmetic significance for the indigenous cultures of southern Africa.
3. San Ramon 15
In 2011, Diego Salazar of the Universidad de Chile and a group of fellow archaeologists documented evidence of the oldest-known mine in the New World. An iron-oxide mine along northern Chile’s Pacific coast appears to have been active some 12,000 years ago, according to carbon-dating of charcoal and other artifacts at the site.
The earliest miners were likely the Huentelauquen people, who may have used pigments rendered from the iron oxide to decorate their bodies, clothes, and tools. Salazar’s team discovered better than 500 hammerstones at the San Ramon 15 mine.
4. Upper Michigan Copper Mines
Location: United States
Until the discovery of the Chilean iron-oxide location, some of the oldest known mines in the Americas came from the margins of Lake Superior in the Upper Midwest. The Old Copper Complex refers to American Indian cultures that mined the great deposits of Precambrian copper found on the Keweenaw Peninsula, Isle Royale in Lake Superior, and nearby areas of Upper Michigan and northern Wisconsin.
This prehistoric copper-mining dates back at least to 5,000 B.C. Keweenaw copper (as the 600-million-year-old metals, formed from mineral deposits in massive basaltic lava flows, are collectively known) from this period was widely traded in aboriginal North America, and has been found at archaeological sites as remote as South Florida.
5. Grime’s Graves
Location: Great Britain
Hundreds of pits in the rolling Breckland heath of southeastern England mark a Neolithic flint-mining complex called Grime’s Graves, one of numerous such sites in the region. More than 5,000 years old, these former mineshafts—dug with antler picks and bone shovels—accessed flint (coveted in the era for forging stone axes) embedded in the landscape’s extensive chalk formations.
An article by David Ross on the website Britain Express mentions several remarkable archaeological finds within the Grime’s Graves, including an antler pick retaining a prehistoric miner’s fingerprint and an abandoned shaft containing what a chalk-fashioned goddess figurine.
Other Ancient Mines
Numerous other mining zones in Eurasia have been active for millennia. The Romans, notably, demonstrated typical ambition and engineering prowess in their intense mining industry, which stretched from the moorlands of Britain to Mediterranean Basin mountains.
They pioneered hydraulic mining, for example, the results of which are most strikingly on display at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Las Médulas in western Spain. Here, Roman miners scoured mountainsides for placer gold by unleashing huge quantities of water they'd conducted through canals to the site and dammed.
"In geographic and technological scope, mining has progressed enormously since our long-ago brethren labored with stone and bone implements to retrieve precious metals from prized outcrops and subterranean seams."
Several salt mines in Central and Eastern Europe can claim an impressive pedigree. The Hallstatt Salt Mine in Austria’s Saltzkammergut district may have been tapped by Celtic diggers as long ago as 4,500 B.C. The remarkable Wieliczka and Bochnia rock-salt mines in Poland, meanwhile, were continuously active from the 13th until the early 21st centuries. Like the Roman excavations at Las Médulas, both the Hallstatt and Wieliczka-Bochnia salt mines are showcased in broader UNESCO World Heritage Site complexes.
Pondering the great age of some of these sites, however, places the mining industry in a much broader context—one that stretches evocatively into the murky shadows of our deep history.