Silver-bearing ore found at the settlement founded by Christopher Columbus's second expedition was not mined in the Americas, new research reveals.

Aerial view of La Isabela, the settlement established by Christopher Columbus's second expedition. Photo credit: J.M. Cruxent, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida.

The ore that researchers excavated from the settlement, La Isabela, came from Spain, said Alyson Thibodeau, who analyzed the ores.

"What appeared to be the earliest evidence of European finds of precious metals in the New World turned out not to be that at all," said David J. Killick. "It's a very different story."

The explorers brought the Spanish ore to La Isabela to use for comparison when assaying the new ores they expected to find, the researchers surmise. The expedition's purpose was discovering precious metals.

Samples of galena, a silver-bearing lead ore, and worked pieces of lead recovered from the archaeological dig at La Isabela. Photos: Copyright 1998. James Quine, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida.

But by 1497, La Isabela's remaining settlers, having found no gold or silver, were desperate to salvage something of value from the failed settlement. They were reduced to extracting silver from the galena they brought from Spain, the researchers said.

"This part of the story of Columbus's failed settlement is one that couldn't be found in the historical documents," said Thibodeau, a geosciences graduate student at The University of Arizona in Tucson. "We could never have figured this out without applying the techniques of physical sciences to the archaeological artifacts."

Thibodeau, Killick, a UA associate professor of anthropology, and their colleagues will publish their article, "The Strange Case of the Earliest Silver Extraction by European Colonists in the New World," in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences during the week of February 19.

By Mari N. Jensen, University of Arizona.
February 19, 2007