The history of mining for precious metals goes back thousands of years and is entwined with the development of human society and the making of nations. One of the first precious metals ever mined was gold, which could be fashioned into beautiful objects with little intervention. Gold has long been valued and associated with wealth, status and beauty. Gold has been mined for over 6000 years and it is thought that some of the earliest gold artifacts came from mines in the Eastern European mountains, in the region of Transylvania or Thrace. Following this, gold was thought to be sourced from Egypt, Northern Sudan or Arabia by the Sumerians and ancient Egyptians. The ancient Mesoamericans mostly collected gold from rivers, until the Spanish conquistadors developed mining in the area (though more silver was produced than gold). The Romans developed a hydraulic gold mining system in the 1st century BC, and performed deep-vein mining. In India, gold has been mined since the 2nd century AD, and India remains the largest consumer of gold in the world, followed by China and the USA. However, when it comes to current gold production, China leads the world, followed by Australia and Russia.
Without a doubt, the most exciting chapters in the history of gold mining are the gold rushes which occurred in the USA and other parts of the world. A gold rush allowed anyone the possibility of becoming incredibly wealthy in a short time and caused population migration. Gold rushes changed the faces of cities and communities all around the world. The largest and best-known gold rush of North America was the California Gold Rush which took place between 1848 and 1855 in the Northern Californian and Sierra Nevada Goldfields. After the discovery of gold, the population of California expanded enormously from less than one thousand to several hundred thousand. This was the biggest human migration in American history. There was a great migration of Americans from the East Coast, who traveled by boat or road, hoping to make their fortune and achieve the "California Dream". In addition, travelers came from Europe, South America and Asia. Many Chinese fortune seekers were clever in melting down their gold into everyday items, which were often blackened, and then transported safely back to China. Some of the first people to become wealthy include Sam Brannan who provided the first miners with supplies. In the beginning, gold could be collected from the ground and the river, but later, more intensive methods, such as hydraulic mining, were employed to recover gold deeper underground, which resulted in environmental damage to the area. Gold is still mined from California and several other regions of the US. In recent years, the nearby state of Nevada has produced the most gold in the USA.
The later Yukon Gold Rush in North-Western Canada at the turn of the century was shorter-lived and not as fruitful. The harsh terrain and remote region was not reached by prospectors until a year after the initial discovery of gold. Compared to the favorable climate of California, the icy Yukon was extremely cold, and at least two thirds of the travelers gave up before even reaching the Klondike River. Some travelers perished in the freezing Yukon, and many left after hearing of another gold rush in a more accessible area. In recent years, Canada has experienced a modern gold rush and in 2014, Canada produced more gold than South Africa. A reality TV series called "Yukon Gold" followed the activities of hopeful placer mining groups who reap what the Klondike fortune seekers could not, fueled by rising global gold prices. Other gold rushes took place in South America, particularly in Brazil and Chile. Tierra del Fuego in Chile experienced a gold rush around the same time as the Yukon Gold Rush. Gold mining continues in Brazil, Chile and other parts of South America and some of the largest mines are located in Peru and Argentina.
On the other side of the world, Australia and New Zealand experienced their own gold rushes. Shortly after the California Gold Rush, a great deal of gold was mined from Victoria in Australia. This discovery of a sizeable goldfield was the making of the city of Melbourne. Large scale gold mining continues in Australia, and most is produced on the western side of Australia, in Kalgoorlie. A later gold rush in the Otago area of New Zealand led to the development of Dunedin, a city which saw an influx of prospectors from all around the world. New Zealand continues to produce gold and recent research has revealed that gold deposits lie beneath volcanic areas.
In the continent of Africa, colonists had been exploiting gold on the West Coast since the 15th century. The area had been named "The Gold Coast". In 1886, the South African Witwatersrand Gold Rush attracted people from all corners of the globe and Johannesburg grew from a mining camp to a bustling city, changing South Africa forever. This area of the world continues to produce a large amount of gold, and the world's deepest mine is Mponeng, which is over 4 kilometers deep. Due to the extreme depth of the mine, the rock below is extremely hot and the air has over 90% humidity. Ice is pumped into the tunnels to cool them, and seismic events are a constant risk.
In this day and age, dramatic gold rushes seem to be a thing of the past. However, unmined gold deposits exist all over the world; the largest are believed to be in South Africa and Russia. As technological advances are made and it becomes possible to recover gold from places that were previously inaccessible, gold will continue to be mined, traded and treasured for centuries to come.
- First Published: April-01-2016
- Last Updated: May-25-2017
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