Ancient mining pollution in early to middle Holocene lake sediments from the Lake Superior region, USA

Kathryn Vall, Collin Murphy, David P. Pompeani, Byron A. Steinman, Kathryn M. Schreiner, Daniel J. Bain, Seth DePasqual, Zachary Wagner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Determining the timing and transport mechanisms (i.e. fluvial and/or atmospheric) of pollution associated with ancient copper mining on Isle Royale in Lake Superior (United States) is important for understanding the current and future trajectory of ecosystems affected by human activity. This study reports metal concentrations in sediment from two small, closed-basin lakes located on Isle Royale (Lily Lake and Pond 2) as a measure of the extent of heavy metal emissions from Indigenous, precontact mining and annealing activities associated with one of the world's oldest metal working industries. Lily Lake and Pond 2 are both located near known mines, but neither lake contains mines in its catchment and thus could not have received pollution via fluvial transport. Elevated concentrations of lead in sediments dating to ∼6000 years ago at both lakes provide evidence of atmospheric transport of pollution associated with mining emissions. The age of ∼6000 years before present is consistent with the timing of elevated lead concentrations in sediment from McCargoe Cove on the northern shore of Isle Royale. Collectively, the data indicate that the peak in Archaic Period mining occurred on southwestern Isle Royale ∼6000 years ago and was preceded by periods that varied in intensity and location across the area. The discovery of pollution signals in lake sediments from the Lake Superior region provides clues as to the timing, spatial patterns, and magnitude of one of the world's earliest large-scale metal mining efforts. These findings provide a basis for determining the transport mechanisms of ancient mining pollution and are a step toward assessing the full environmental impact of mining and metal working efforts by early human civilizations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number100348
StatePublished - Sep 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was funded by two grants from the Great Lakes Research and Education Center , graduate student research grants from the Geological Society of America , and the Swenson College of Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota Duluth . Logistical support was provided by Isle Royale National Park. The funding sources had no role in the study design; in the collection, analysis and interpretation of data; in the writing of the report; or in the decision to submit the article for publication. We thank Tedy Ozersky and Katherine Pompeani for assistance during fieldwork and Nathan Stansell for assistance with radiocarbon dating.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 Elsevier Ltd


  • Ancient pollution
  • Copper mining
  • Lake sediment
  • Lake Superior
  • Lead pollution
  • Metallurgy


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