Dark History of Gold Begins With Smashed Stars

Gold is a precious metal associated with power and privilege, two virtues that historically have had absolutely nothing to do with mining or the gold trade.

No element is simultaneously as trivial to our survival but as vital to human history as gold. Fortunes have been made. Armies have been raised. Empires have been built. Not bad considering that all of the gold ever mined -- all 165,000 metric tons of it -- if melted down would fill just three and a half Olympic swimming pools.

Gold is a precious metal associated with power and privilege, two virtues that historically have had absolutely nothing to do with mining or the gold trade. Even today, gold mining is a profession relegated to the world's poorest, often operating in illegal mines that pose a threat to their health and the environment.

In one region on Peru in 2011 illegal mining accounted for 97 percent of total gold production, according to The Economist. Such mines in South America pollute the environment, spur often fatal rivalries between prospectors and indigenous tribes, and trigger landslides, killing workers. In Africa, gold mines could threaten the stability of an entire nation. A special report released last week by Reuters documents the lucrative unlicensed mining industry in the Ivory Coast, the proceeds of which go to a network of former rebel commanders. One commander even has enough weapons to outgun the Ivorian army, a confidential U.N. report finds.

Gold has always had a transformative power and usually not for the better. Learn how gold and gold mining has shaped human history.

All gold that's ever been found on Earth or anywhere in the universe for that matter originated from collisions of dead stars. Other elements are born within stars themselves, but gold requires a more cataclysmic event, a study by scientists with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophyics found. The amount of gold created and ejected following the merger of two neutron stars, the dead cores of stars leave behind after exploding as supernovae, could be as large as 10 moon masses.

Gold is a rare element because such an event is not a common occurrence. Neutron star collisions happen roughly once every 100,000 years in the Milky Way galaxy. Gold isn't the only byproduct of these collisions; they also form black holes.

According to "Gold: History and Genesis of Deposits," gold may have been the first metal known to humankind, with nuggets, flakes and gold dust turning up in soil and shallow streams.

The earliest evidence of goldsmithing emerges around the year 4600 B.C. on the shores of the Black Sea near the modern-day city of Varna, Bulgaria. Alongside ceramics, copper tools and stone idols, archaeologists discovered gold necklaces, scepters and other objects in a necropolis housing just under 300 graves, according to the Varna Museum of Archaelogy. Given the amount of gold found at the site, this finding suggests gold mining has occurred for at least seven millennia.

Gold is remarkably malleable metal and never corrodes. Because gold never loses its shine, ancient societies adopted the metal as a symbol of immortality, which is why it was used in funeral rites.

Gold was also used in commerce in ancient societies, with the first gold coins appearing around the 6th century B.C.

Hidden Treasures Discovered by Chance

Among the most talented goldsmiths of the ancient world and famous in history were the ancient Egyptians. The gold burial mask of King Tut is perhaps the most potent symbol of ancient Egyptian civilization in modern times.

Egypt was a major gold producer during the Old and New Kingdoms. One of the earliest geological maps in history, the Turin Papyrus, shows gold-producing regions in Egypt around 1160 B.C.

Gold was a symbol of wealth as far back as the ancient Egyptians. Believed to be the flesh of the sun god, Ra, gold could only adorn the pharaohs themselves, until priests and other members of the royal courts were permitted the privilege, Miners' Weekly explains.

Workers tasked with mining the "flesh of the gods" were slaves and prisoners, who were essentially worked to death, records Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, who lived during the first century B.C. Starting in the predynastic period at least around 3500 B.C., ancient Egyptians extracted gold most likely through alluvial deposits in the Eastern desert of Egypt and Nubia, according to a 2001 paper published in African Earth Sciences (PDF). Early prospectors eventually targeted gold-enriched quartz veins, with miners using fire to break apart the rock and crushing the ore to set free the gold.

During the classical period, ancient civilizations exploited gold deposits throughout the Mediterranean, Asia minor and Africa. The Egyptians, the Greeks, the Persians and later the Romans all built empires in part with gold.

In his book "Natural History," Roman author Pliny the Elder extensively documents gold mining and extraction methods in Europe, India and the Far East. In addition to the placer mining techniques used in ancient Egypt, the Romans employed hydraulic mining, using water to break up rock, at sites like Las Médulas in northern Spain. The Romans were among the first to have an environmental impact with their large-scale mining efforts, diverting rivers for their water-intensive methods and collapsing hills and mountainsides using a chain-mining method.

Pliny also commented on the corrupting nature of gold in his writing, stating, "Gangadia or quartzite is considered the hardest of all things -- except for the greed for gold, which is even more stubborn."

Julius Caesar distributed 200 gold coins to all of his soldiers and paid off Rome's debts, moves that boosted his popularity and eventually allowed him to seize control of Rome.

The Silk Road may derive its name from the Chinese luxury good, but gold was among the most prized commodities and currencies for trading across civilizations. Most gold flowed from West to East, as China lacked gold production capabilities similar to its European and Indian trading partners. Because ancient China had so few gold mining operations, imperial dynasties put strict controls on gold. Gold flowed into China but was not allowed to go back out.

The collapse of the Roman empire temporarily halted large-scale mining operations by Europeans during the early Middle Ages, and a depletion of gold among European powers thanks to trading temporarily led to the abandonment of the precious metal as the basis for currency, due to an adverse balance with traders to the East.

That changed starting in the second half of the 13th century, when gold from West Africa, which previously bound for the Middle East, started to flow into Europe.

Beginning in the 15th century, the Portuguese would send expeditions to explore the west coast of Africa. What they found along the Atlantic shores on what would later become known as the Gold Coast would turn Portugal into a major maritime power.

Upon their arrival in 1471, the Portuguese began trading for gold dust, ivory and other goods. Seeking a monopoly on the region's trade, the Portuguese kept their discovery secret from other European powers for about a century. During that time, Portugal managed to secure what was roughly 10 percent of the world's total gold production. Almost all of the gold minted by Portugal, Spain and Italy for coins during the era originated in West Africa.

By the 16th century, other European powers found their way to the Gold Coast and sought to exploit it. Although gold provided the namesake for the region, and the precious metal and other valuables were traded, the Gold Coast was the principle point of exchange for slaves, and would serve as a lynchpin for the triangular trade. Slave labor was used in the gold mines of Africa, but many more slaves also found themselves sent over the ocean to the New World.

Long before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, indigenous tribes in central and South America dabbled in mining gold and used it to create ornaments and other decorative artifacts. Native Americans didn't place much value on gold, and little evidence exists of any gold mining operations to the level of the ancient Egyptians or the Romans, according to "The History of Mining."

When explorers began scouring the New World for riches, King Ferdinand sent them with the directive, "Get gold, humanely if you can, but at all hazards, get gold." Throughout their travels through the Americas, the Spaniards pursued the fabled city of El Dorado, where gold was as common as sand. Though indigenous tribes such as the Aztec and Inca were content to trade away their gold and give them as presents, their stockpiles weren't enough to satisfy Spanish gold lust.

In their never-ending quest to acquire more gold, Spanish Conquistadors tortured and butchered native tribesmen. When gold or more often silver deposits were located, natives would be displaced, put to work as slaves in mines or eradicated entirely. This pattern would repeat itself with not only the Spanish but also other Western powers well into the 19th century. Gold in other words was a major contributor to Native American genocide.

Although Mexican and South American riches greatly bolstered Spanish treasuries, gold also contributed to the downfall of the Spanish empire. The huge increases in the quantities of gold and silver flowing to the Spanish government spurred runaway inflation, with prices rising around 600 percent on consumer goods, greatly reducing standard of living for ordinary Spaniards.

The year 1848 would see the West transformed. Following the conclusion of the Mexican-American War, western territory that would include the future state of California now belonged to the United States. On Jan. 24 of that same year, a few flecks of gold discovered at Sutter's mill would change the fortunes of an entire country.

 Forty thousand miners from across the world descended on California in 1849, rushing to work claims for their own shot at fortune. A handful of the miners would strike it rich. Some would eke out a living working profitable claims. Others would find themselves empty-handed, returning home or seeking fortunes elsewhere in the west, such as Colorado or Nevada. Competition for claims brought out the worst in prospectors, driving off Native Americans, Mexicans or Chinese laborers either with guns or government.

Although towns came and went in the blink of an eye, several cities the miners helped build were there to stay, as the businesses that supported the mining effort were the ones to truly benefit from the gold rush. California today still maintains a legacy of optimism, ambition and initiative brought in by the prospectors. Unfortunately, the state also bears a toxic legacy from those days, with mercury used to extract gold in the 19th century still present in the waters of the San Francisco Bay.

Less than 40 years after gold fever would seize the American West, a new discovery in South Africa would set off another gold rush, spawning the largest gold production operation in world history.

In 1886, a pair of prospectors discovered gold in the Witwatersrand basin. The gold rush that ensued transformed South Africa from a sparsely populated agrarian state to what would be an industrialized nation full of precious metal and mineral wealth. Johannesburg, once a small town, rapidly grew as laborers, investors, shopkeepers and others flooded in, and would later become South Africa's capital city.

The mining industry would also lay the foundation for apartheid, the segregationist policy that would define South African government during the 20th century. Initially the races mixed, which was opposed by the Afrikaners who preached white superiority.

The gold in South Africa required deep-rock mining, an expensive undertaking that required investors with deep pockets. The mining relied heavily on cheap, black migrant labor. In the early 20th century, "Colour Bar" laws, specifically the Mines and Works Act, were also put into effect that kept blacks out of better-paying jobs.

For much of the 20th and into the 21st century, South Africa led the world in terms of gold production, but output has been in decline since the 1970s. Since 2009, China has been the world's largest producer, with output around 400 metric tons in 2013. Total global gold production stands around 2,500 metric tons annually. India, China and the United States are the world's leading gold consumers, often in the form of jewelry.

More than 90 percent of the world's gold in existence today has been mined since the California Gold Rush, according to the World Gold Council. Modern gold mining techniques yield more gold than ancient methods, but also have a devastating environmental impact. Toxins like mercury and cyanide, used in gold extraction, often find their way into marine ecosystems downstream from mining sites, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Hundreds of tons of elemental mercury are also released into the air as a result of gold mining. As is the case following the California Gold Rush, toxins left from mining operations can remain behind long after any prospectors have left a workable site, often requiring billions of dollars of cleanup to restore ecosystems.

New Gold Rush Threatens Amazon Wildlife, Climate