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article imageResearchers — Humans have been polluting rivers for 7,000 years

By Karen Graham     Dec 4, 2016 in Science
Human-caused environmental pollution is usually associated with the start of the modern industrial era, but researchers looking for evidence of when humans first began using metal tools may have found the world's first polluted river.
For centuries, humans have used rivers, streams and the sea as a garbage dump, not realizing the consequences of their actions. Actually, it was just something people did to get rid of their waste.
But an international team of anthropologists, looking for clues on how man first transitioned from using stone tools to metal ones discovered a 7,000-year-old dried up riverbed in the Wadi Faynan region of southern Jordan that had high levels of copper pollution in the sediment, according to a press release.
Professor Russell Adams, with the Department of Anthropology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, along with his colleagues, found evidence of the early anthropogenic or human-caused pollution, as well as the smelting of copper.
Professor David Gilbertson  UW student Manual Arab and Dr. Keith Haylock examine upper sections at T...
Professor David Gilbertson, UW student Manual Arab and Dr. Keith Haylock examine upper sections at Tell Wadi Faynan.
University of Waterloo/Sue Haylock
These discoveries provide evidence of a revolutionary turning-point in human history — the point in time when humans turned from stone tools to actually forging metal tools. The findings were published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.
The Chalcolithic or Copper Age
The Chalcolithic age is a transitional period between the late Neolithic or Stone Age and the beginnings of the Bronze Age. This is when humans first began to experiment with pyrometallurgy, learning about fire, making pottery and copper ores, reports Motherboard.
The anthropologists choose southern Jordan to begin their search because the Faynan region has a long history of human occupation. Adams said, "The technological innovation and the spread of the adoption and use of metals in society mark the beginning of the modern world."
The researchers suggest early populations living near the river probably combined charcoal along with the blue-green copper ore that is plentiful in the region, putting the mixture in pottery vessels and heating it over a fire. This early metallurgy process was very time-consuming and labor-intensive.
It would take thousands of years before society would make copper a central part of human industry. It is surmised that the first use of copper was in the making of beads or ceremonial trinkets, something that gave some individuals a certain amount of prestige in their society.
As time went on, populations grew and copper production expanded. It wasn't until about 2600 BC that people began mining copper and building large smelting furnaces and factories. "This region is home to the world's first industrial revolution," said Adams. "This really was the center of innovative technology."
A view of Wadi Faynan from the Middle Islamic slag mound at Khirbat Faynan. Sources of wood suitable...
A view of Wadi Faynan from the Middle Islamic slag mound at Khirbat Faynan. Sources of wood suitable for charcoal are not particularly plentiful in this landscape.
Islamic Bayda Project
Evidence of copper pollution
The waste from copper smelting is called slag. This leftover slag can contain lead, arsenic, zinc or the by-products of mercury, thallium and other metals. Plants absorb these metals and people and animals such as goats and sheep in turn eat the plants.
A vicious cycle of bio-contamination started that has lasted right up to modern times. The research also suggests that human health problems were probably widespread during the Bronze Age because of bio-contamination. Adams said infertility, birth malformations and premature death probably plagued these early people.
And the other takeaway from the research is that polluting our rivers is something that has been going on for at least 7,000 years. The one difference is that we now know what this pollution does to our health and to the environment. All we need to do is look at Flint, Michigan.
More about Environmental pollution, Copper, Jordan, metallurgy, Chalcolithic aage
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