The story of gold is almost as old as the story of civilization itself. Since the birth of history, cultures have embraced gold for its aesthetic appeal and inherent functionality. But who were the first people to discover gold, and how did it impact their society?
Gold in Ancient Egypt
By all accounts, the first civilization to mine and use gold were the ancient Egyptians. Artifacts recovered over the centuries lead scientists and historians alike to agree that the Egyptians first began mining gold in 5000 BCE, before developing written language. Before the Egyptians invented hieroglyphics, they mined and collected gold.
Egypt’s First Gold Mines
At its height, the Egyptian kingdom was the largest and most powerful on the African continent and one of the most significant societies in the Mediterranean and Asia Minor regions. The most prosperous region in Egypt was Nubia, where the Egyptians constructed the world’s first active gold mines. The name “Nubia” is rooted in the word “nbw,” the Egyptian word for gold.
From the mines in Nubia, the Egyptians harvested gold for thousands of years. It made the kingdom incredibly wealthy, and soon gold played an integral role in Egyptian society. For centuries, only pharaohs, religious leaders, and a handful of wealthy elites owned gold.
The First Uses of Gold
For the first 3000 years, Egyptians used gold primarily for jewelry and religious items. Even so, methods of working the gold were incredibly sophisticated. The gold mined in Nubia mainly came in the form of electrum, a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver. The desire for pure gold led to the first assays; procedures by which gold and other metals are melted down and separated. The Egyptian’s invented the first assay around 3500 BCE when early metallurgists found that adding salt to the melt would bind with the silver and evaporate in a thick mist of sodium chloride. These innovations led to the development of the fire assay, which is still in use today.
In 1500 BCE, Egypt began using gold as a currency. The currency was called the shekel, and it was minted from electrum. The practice of using gold as a form of money quickly spread throughout Asia Minor, and it was perhaps one of the single most important moments in the history of finance and economics. In the first 2500 years since the initial discovery of gold, it went from being purely decorative and ornamental to becoming the unit by which the civilized world measured value.
Gold: Ancient Egypt to Now
Gold’s mysterious allure has captivated the hearts and minds of civilizations since before the invention of the written language. In the thousands of years that separate the ancient world from our modern global society, gold remains significant to mankind. When you hold a piece of gold, you are taking part in a tradition that is as old as civilization. And it all started with the Egyptians.
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Also, stay tuned to Garfield Refining’s blog for more fun and helpful articles about precious metals history, such as The Top 3 Most Popular Gold Rush Ghost Towns, Does Fort Know still have Gold?, and How did Gold get its Name?