Metal and obsidian

Pre-Columbian extraction of raw materials in southern Peru

Southern Peru is one of those landscapes which has so far been studied very little, especially with regard to issues of raw materials. Surprisingly, the fabled gold riches of the pre-Columbian cultures of South America have hardly led to any studies about raw material extraction. For the most part, specific objects have been used to investigate archaeometallurgical and craftwork-related questions. In this respect, however, southern Peru has tended to be overshadowed by the better-investigated areas in the coastal zone of northern Peru and of the Altiplano. And yet the south Peruvian landscape is at least equally revealing.

Rich mineralization zones reach from the south, along the western slopes of the Andes and the Atacama Desert to roughly the level of the Ica Peninsula. In particular, important cultural complexes such as the Paracas culture and the better-known Nazca culture are likely to have exploited these metal ore deposits; the metallurgically active Ica Chincha group from the so-called Late Intermediate period (roughly 11-14th century) may also have done so. The coastal landscape of southern Peru – in particular, the intensively settled river oases – was always closely linked with the highlands, and could be reached from these by way of transverse valleys known as quebradas. It is therefore not surprising that an economic exchange took place between these areas in various phases.
Here our project links in with the activities of the Kommission für Archäologie Außereuropäischer Kulturen (KAAK, Commission for Archaeology of Non-European Cultures). Under the auspices of Prof. Dr. B. Eitel and Dr. M. Reindel, a project is currently being carried out on these very questions, examining settlement conditions and systems of exchange between the highlands and the coastal region under the heading “climate-sensitive cultural systems” (the “Andes transect” project). In this context, relationships based on raw materials are an important aspect, whether it be a matter of metals being supplied to the metal-poor highlands around Ayacucho, or of obsidian, for example, finding its way to the coast. In many respects we are just beginning to understand these various relations of exchange. As part of the project, and in collaboration with the KAAK Bonn, we carried out preliminary research and, in 2006 and 2009, initial prospecting and analyses. The findings are now being processed with a more extensive archaeometric approach by B. Gräfingholt, within the framework of a doctoral thesis (funding: Konrad Adenauer Foundation). It is anticipated that the thesis project will lead to a more extensive research project on southern Peru and northern Chile.

Ongoing PhD thesis

Benedikt Gräfingholt:
Pre-Columbian raw materials between southern Peru and northern Chile

Project manager

Prof. Dr. Thomas Stöllner

Responsible body

Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum


  • Th. Stöllner, M. Reindel, G. Gassman, B. Gräfingholt, J. Isla Cuadrado: Precolumbian raw-material exploitation in southern Peru – Structures and perspectives. Exploitation de materias primas precolumbinas en el sur de Perú – Estructuras y perspectivas. Chungara, Revista de Antropología Chilena 45/1, 2013, 105-129.
  • M. Reindel, Th. Stöllner, B. Gräfingholt: Mining Archaeology in the Nasca and Palpa Region, South Coast of Peru. In: N. Tripcevich, K. Vaughn (eds.), Mining and Quarrying in the Ancient Andes Sociopolitical, Economic, and Symbolic Dimensions (New York, Heidelberg: Springer 2012) 299-322.
  • Th. Stöllner, Gold in Southern Peru? Perspectives of Research into Mining Archaeology. In: M. Reindel/G.A. Wagner (Eds.), New Technologies for Archaeology. Multidisciplinary Investigations in Palpa and Nasca, Peru (Berlin-Heidelberg: Springer 2009) 393-407.
  • Th. Stöllner/M. Reindel, Vorspanische Goldgewinnung im Bereich von Palpa-Nasca? Bericht über eine einwöchige Prospektionskampagne an der Südküste Perus. Der Anschnitt 59/1, 2007, 2-12.
  • Reindel, M., Stöllner, T., Gräfingholt , B. 2012. Mining Archaeology in the Nasca and Palpa Region, South Coast of Peru, in: Tripcevich, N., Vaughn, K. (Eds.), Mining and Quarrying in the Ancient Andes Sociopolitical, Economic, and Symbolic Dimensions, New York, Heidelberg: Springer, pp. 299-322.