3,000-year-old copper mask is oldest crafted object in South America

Rectangular-shaped mask believed to serve funerary ritual purpose

It's a well-known fact that copper was used by ancient peoples to make some of the earliest tools and artwork.

After extensive study of a mask found in a grave in the Catamarca Province of northern Argentina, anthropologists now believe the mask is the oldest copper object to be made into a craft in South America. The story of the relic was recently published in the journal Antiquity, and has anthropologists at the University of Buenos Aires describing how the 18 by 15 centimeter (7 by 5.9 inch) rectangular mask was found in 2005, buried alongside a number of bodies.

Because the mask – which was designed to look like a human with holes for eyes, a nose and a mouth – left copper carbonate stains on the bodies, anthropologists think it had some kind of funerary ritual purpose and may have been used to represent an ancestor. 

Because the mask – which was designed to look like a human with holes for eyes, a nose and a mouth – left copper carbonate stains on the bodies, anthropologists think it had some kind of funerary ritual purpose and may have been used to represent an ancestor.

"The Ancestor cult is a very ancient and widespread cosmology in the Andean region, with of course, local and historical variants," study author Leticia Inés Cortés was quoted in IFLScience. "There is also a number of evidence that shows that, at that time, mobile groups used to transport the bodies of their dead or parts of these bodies from place to place along with them."

She adds that because the human remains date back 3,000 years, the mask is the “oldest intentionally shaped copper object discovered in the Andes.” The scientists believe the copper was sourced from ores found in Catamarca Province, home to one of the largest copper-gold mines, Alumbrera. The mine started in 1998 and its ownership is split between Goldcorp (NYSE:GG) (37.5%), Glencore (LON:GLEN) (50%) and Yamana Gold (NYSE:AUY). Glencore is the operator.