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A Brief History of Gold

Posted by: Megan Cartwright


Gold. A four letter word that, when said slowly, and boldly, sounds as heavy as the element feels. Gold. Unfortunately, the origin of human interaction with gold cannot be traced to a golden fleece, nor a fabled Central American city, and there are seemingly no pots left at the end of any rainbows. 

The history of gold is long and coated in a great deal of mystery and hypotheses. Its weight, its refulgent shine, and its resistance to corrosion have likely all influenced historical cultural perceptions of the element. 

Scientists at top universities have suggested, during the last decade, that the collisions of "neutron stars" are likely responsible for much of the delivery of gold to Earth. Dead stars exploding upon impact with one another, causing enormous chunks to begin straying helplessly through space. Chunks that were laden with heavy elements such as... gold. 

Between the lengthy gap of 4.1 and 3.8 billion years ago, an event known as the Late Heavy Bombardment is theorised to have occurred: large quantities of asteroids crashing into the inner solar system's terrestrial planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Earth. 

Much closer in time is the history of human interaction with gold. Bulgaria's Varna Necropolis is widely regarded as the site at which the oldest known gold object artifacts have been discovered, dating back to between 4,600-4,200 BC. When Raycho Marinov found--ostensibly by accident--the site of the Necropolis in 1972, many of the 294 graves contained examples of metallurgy, specifically, copper and gold. The first supposed gold mine is dated around one thousand years younger: Sakdrisi, in southern Georgia. Archaeology dates Sakdrisi back to the 4th/3rd millennia BC. 

Gold Mining:

Gold mining came to prominence in the Roman Empire, with their primary mine situated in northwestern Spain, specifically, at Las Medulas. The now spectacular landscape constituting Las Medulas was caused by ruina montium (wrecking of the mountains), an admonishing term used by philosopher Pliny the Elder in 77 AD to describe the Roman mining technique. Undermining the mountains with vast washes of water, this early example of hydraulic mining stripped Las Medulas of much of its gravel in order to free the very resistant gold from these alluvial deposits. Over the course of 250 years, it is estimated that 1,650,000kg (1,650 tonnes) of gold was extracted by the Romans, and, unsurprisingly, gold eventually became the primary method of exchange within the Roman Empire. Emperor Claudius's invasion of Britain in the 1st Century AD led to the annexation of Dolaucothi Gold Mines, in Wales.

Some of the earliest pit mining was discovered at the Kolar Gold Fields in the Karnataka state, India. These pits date back to at least 2nd Century AD, and mining operations throughout Karnataka were in progress for many centuries; Karnataka's total gold production is estimated at around 1000 tonnes. Roughly 184,000 tonnes have been produced globally since the advent of civilization. 

During the 19th Century, gold rushes across various parts of the globe triggered mass miner migration, such as the famous California Gold Rush between 1848-55, which drew in over 300,000 hopeful gold hunters. Events such as this one have been written about extensively by historians and other academics; many prospective miners returned home from this gold rush with less wealth than they had before they upped sticks and made the journey to California. For a small fraction of prospectors, their perseverance was life-changing. 

The mining of gold has evolved over the course of human interaction with this dense metal. While the hydraulic methods (sluicing, dredging) used two millennia ago by the Romans are practised still (albeit in a more technologically advanced manner nowadays), the prospectors of the mid-19th century in the USA often resorted to "panning" for gold. Using a broad, shallow pan, a miner would submerge the pan in water and shake it, separating gold from gravel and other materials. Panning for gold is often now marketed as a tourist activity. Other methods of mining gold include byproduct mining: Grasberg Copper Mine in Papua, Indonesia, produces large quantities of gold as a byproduct of its copper mining; and hard rock mining: the extraction of gold from rock that is much tougher than loose sediments. Hard rock mining accounts for the majority of the world's gold. The Goldstrike Mine in Nevada is one of the largest open pit hard rock mines in the world, owned by Barrick Gold Corporation.  

Gold Usage:

According to previous reports, the current usage of gold is divided unevenly into three main sectors. Jewellery, which accounts for around 47.1% of gold production, is the first. The gold will often be alloyed with other metals, altering the gold's hardness and ductility. According to the World Gold Council, 88,000 tonnes of gold exists in jewellery. 

Investment is the second primary usage of gold, accounting for around 20%. Traditional ways of preserving this asset can include storing the gold in the form of bullion coins or bars, often as a hedge against inflation or other economic disruptions. Traditionally, the properties of the bullion will be around 92% or above, in pure gold. A special issue Canadian Gold Maple Leaf coin contains the highest ever purity of any gold bullion coin, being able to boast a purity of 99.999%. Conversely, the popular issue Canadian Gold Maple Leaf coin has a modest purity of only 99.99%... 

The rest of the gold has a sprawling multi-usage: industry. Gold's resistance to toxicity, to corrosion, and to starkly humid atmospheres has led to manufacturers the world over using gold for all sorts. Gold is great for electrical connector coatings for devices such as computers and mobile phones (approximately 50mg of gold can be found in a mobile phone; for every billion phones, this equates to around $500 million; for more context, this would equate to only 50 tonnes of gold); gold has a usage in embroidery; gold toning can be effective in photography; gold is even utilised as a reflector in astronaut helmets! In the 19th Century, gold was employed by some doctors to treat nervous disorders. 

The list goes on! Plenty of people nowadays have a restored tooth--perhaps a bridge or a crown--that is made of a gold alloy. Gold even has an E number: 175; and the nobility of Medieval Europe often coated their food and drink in gold flakes or leaves as a symbol of their affluence. However, since metallic gold is inert to all body chemistry, it has no taste, it provides no nutrition, and it leaves the body unaltered.

Striking Gold:

The top three gold producers in the world, as of 2015, were China (455 tonnes), Australia (270 tonnes), and Russia (250 tonnes). Canadian giant Barrick Gold Corporation is the leading gold mining company in the world, with an impressive directory of global operations including Australia, Argentina, Zambia, The Dominican Republic, Saudi Arabia, and Canada to name but a few; this list demonstrates the sheer global dispersion of one of Earth's most coveted elements. The asteroids, it seems, landed everywhere. 

And as long as there is gold to be mined, the consumer world will find and produce it. 

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