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We are all miners

February 2016

Second only to agriculture, mining may very well be mankind’s oldest endeavour. Since prehistoric times, mining has played an important part in human existence. I, of course, refer to the term in its broadest possible sense.

Today, we cannot fathom a world without mining. Diamonds, gold and all the cosmetic gemstones would simply not exist. In the absence of sand to turn into glass, we would still be drinking out of metal jugs - oh, sorry, even that had to be mined. The air that you breathe would be much worse if the catalytic converter were not there to reduce the harmful emissions. Could any of us imagine a life without a computer and the gold conduits of the motherboards that transmit data at the speed of light?

The history of mining is fascinating. It parallels the history of civilisation with many important cultural eras associated with and identified by various minerals or their derivatives: the Stone Age (prior to 4000 BC), the Bronze Age (4000 to 5000 BC), the Iron Age (prior to 4000 BC), the Steel Age (1780–1945), and the Nuclear Age (1945 to present day). Many milestones in human history – Marco Polo’s journey to China, Vasco da Gama’s voyages to Africa and India, Columbus’ discovery of the New World, and the modern gold rushes that led to the settlement of California, Alaska, South Africa, Australia and the Canadian Klondike – were all achieved with minerals providing a major incentive.

The abundance of minerals also provided a method of creating wealth. Minerals could be traded on the open market, enabling countries that possessed them to obtain valuable currency from countries that did not; or at least this was so in the early development of mining. It would appear that in our modern world that the possession of the commodity itself is not what creates wealth, but rather the capacity to transform that commodity into useful products.

The ability to use mineral resources as a means of creating wealth opens the possibility that a given country or countries will attempt to control the entire market in a particular mineral. In 1973, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) attempted to control oil prices in a bold manoeuvre to obtain windfall profits from the oil they produced. Although successful in the short run, the cartel eventually lost effectiveness because of increased oil production elsewhere, and difficulty in controlling its own member countries. However, for a few years OPEC was successful at regulating petroleum prices. Other cartels have likewise been attempted and perhaps De Beers’ control of the diamond market is the most lasting of these. However, the greater freedom in international trade now makes such attempts less likely to succeed.

The essence of mining in extracting mineral wealth from the earth is to drive an excavation or excavations form the surface to the mineral deposit. Normally, these openings into the earth are meant to allow personnel to enter into the underground deposit. However, as in the case of petroleum, boreholes are, at times, used to extract the mineral wealth from the earth. Even though no one enters the excavation, these boreholes are also called mines.

Mining in its simplest form began with Palaeolithic humans some 450 000 years ago, evidenced by the first flint implements that have been found with the bones of early humans from the Old Stone Age. Our ancestors extracted pieces from loose masses of flint or from easily accessed outcrops and, using crude methods of chipping the flint, shaped them into tools and weapons. By the New Stone Age humans had progressed to underground mining in systematic openings 0.6 – 0.9 metres in height and more than nine metres in depth. The oldest known underground mine, a hematite mine at Bomvu Ridge in Swaziland, is from the Old Stone Age and believed to be about 40 000 years old. Early miners employed crude methods of ground control, ventilation, haulage, hoisting, lighting and rock breakage. Nonetheless, mines attained depths of up to 250 metres in early Egyptian times.

Metallic mines also attracted the attention of prehistoric humans. Initially, metals were used in their original form, probably obtained by washing river gravel in placer deposits. With the advent of the Bronze and Iron Ages, humans discovered smelting and learnt to reduce ores into pure metals or alloys, which greatly improved their ability to use these metals.

The first challenge for early miners was to break the ore and loosen it from the surrounding rock mass. Often, their crude tools made of bone, wood and stone were no match for the harder rock, unless the rock contained crevices or cracks that could be opened by wedging or prying. As a result, they soon developed a revolutionary technique called fire setting, whereby they first heated the rock to expand it and then doused it with cold water to contract and break it. This was one of the first great advances in the science of rock breaking, and is believed to have had a greater impact than the discovery of dynamite by Alfred Nobel in 1867.

A noticeable improvement in the development of a mining industry was in 1185 when the bishop of Trent, in what later became the United Kingdom, granted a charter to miners in his domain. It gave miners legal as well as social rights, including the right to stake mineral claims. A milestone in the history of mining, the edict has had long-standing consequences that persist to this day.

The greatest impact on the need for or use of minerals, however, was provided by the Industrial Revolution at the close of the eighteenth century. Along with soaring demand for minerals came spectacular improvements in mining technology, especially in scientific concepts and mechanisation that have continued to this day.

During the last two centuries, there has been great progress in mining technology in many different areas. Such progress is often made in an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary manner. Yet every once in a while, a revolutionary discovery comes along and changes the progress of mining profoundly. During the nineteenth century, the invention of continuous mining equipment, which extracts the softer materials like coal without the use of explosives, was perhaps the most notable of these accomplishments. The first continuous miner was tested in about 1940, with its usefulness greatly enhanced by the development of the tungsten carbide inserts in 1945 by the then McKenna Metals Company. By 1950 the continuous miner had started to replace other coal mining methods. The era of mechanised mining had begun.

None of us really knows what the future holds for mining in South Africa. What we can be sure of is that mining will continue to be a large contributor to this economy and employment. As part of the inevitable evolution of the mining industry, reliance on humans to mine will be reduced over time. Not only will further mechanisation bring greater efficiencies but it will reduce the risk of serious injuries and fatalities, which is of course a laudable aim.

This article has been prepared with the assistance of the Introduction to Mining information published by the Portugal Mining Institute and the references referred to in that work available at http://www.cienciaviva.pt/img/upload/Introduction%20to%20mining.pdf

The team

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