What Was the First Known Element?

Elements Known to Ancient Man

Hand holding gold nuggets
Ancient man knew gold, which occurred in nuggets and crystals.

Photography by Mangiwau / Getty Images

What was the first known element? Actually, there were nine elements known to ancient man. They were gold, silver, copper, iron, lead, tin, mercury, sulfur, and carbon. These are elements that exist in pure form or that could be purified using relatively simple means. Why so few elements? Most elements are bound as compounds or exist in mixtures with other elements. For example, you breathe oxygen every day, but when was the last time you saw the pure element?

Key Takeaways: First Known Chemical Element

  • The ancients used nine elements that exist is relatively pure form in nature: copper, lead, gold, silver, iron, carbon, tin, sulfur, and mercury.
  • At the time, the nature of elements was unknown. Most civilizations actually viewed elements to be earth, air, fire, water and possibly aether, wood, or metal.
  • Recorded history only verifies the use of these nine elements, but many other elements exist in native form that may have had use to early humans.

Copper

Copper use dates back to around 9000 BC in the Middle East. Originally, it was mined as native metal, but it was one of the earliest smelted metals, leading to the Bronze Age. Copper beads dating about 6000 BC were found in Anatolia. A copper smelting site was found in Serbia dating back to 5000 BC.

Lead

Lead has a low melting point, so it was an easy metal for early people to smelt. Lead smelting likely occurred around 9000 years ago (7000 BC). The oldest lead artifact is a statuette found in the temple of Osiris in Egypt that was made around 3800 BC.

Gold

Gold came into use before 6000 BC. The oldest existing sample of gold artifacts come from the Levant region of Western Asia.

Silver

Humans started using silver before 5000 BC. The oldest surviving artifacts are from Asia Minor and date to around 4000 BC.

Iron

Iron came into use before 5000 BC. The oldest artifacts are beads made from meteoric iron that were made in Egypt around 4000 BC. People learned how to smelt iron around 3000 BC, ultimately leading to the Iron Age that started about 1200 BC.

Holsinger Meteorite
People used iron from meteorites long before it was smelted. StephanHoerold / Getty Images

Carbon

Elemental carbon was known in the forms of charcoal, graphite, and diamond. The Sumerians and Egyptians used charcoal by 3750 BC. Diamonds were known at least as early as 2500 BC.

Tin

Tin was smelted with copper to make bronze around 3500 BC in Asia Minor. Archaeologists discovered a cassiterite (iron oxide) mine in Turkey that was in operation from 3250 to 1800 BC. The oldest surviving tin objects date around 2000 BC and are from Turkey.

Sulfur

Sulfur first came into use before 2000 BC. The Ebers Papyrus (1500 BC) described the use of sulfur to treat eyelid conditions in Egypt. It was one of the earliest substance recognized as a chemical element (Jabir ibn Hayyan circa AD 815).

Mercury

Mercury use dates back to at least 1500 BC. It was found in Egyptian tombs from that time.

Other Native Elements

While history only records early use of nine elements, there are several other elements that occur as native minerals in pure form or alloys. These include:

  • Aluminum
  • Antimony
  • Arsenic
  • Bismuth
  • Cadmium
  • Chromium
  • Cobalt
  • Indium
  • Iridium
  • Manganese
  • Molybdenum
  • Nickel
  • Niobium
  • Osmium
  • Palladium
  • Platinum
  • Rhenium
  • Rhodium
  • Selenium
  • Silicon
  • Tantalum
  • Tellurium
  • Titanium
  • Tungsten
  • Vanadium
  • Zinc

Of these, arsenic, antimony, and bismuth all came into use before 1000 AD. The discovery of the other elements dates from the 17th century onward.

Sources

  • Fleischer, Michael; Cabri, Louis J.; Chao, George Y.; Pabst, Adolf (1980). "New Mineral Names". American Mineralogist. 65: 1065–1070.
  • Gopher, A.; Tsuk, T.; Shalev, S. & Gophna, R. (August–October 1990). "Earliest Gold Artifacts in the Levant". Current Anthropology. 31 (4): 436–443. doi:10.1086/203868
  • Hauptmann, A.; Maddin, R.; Prange, M. (2002). "On the structure and composition of copper and tin ingots excavated from the shipwreck of Uluburun". Bulletin of the American School of Oriental Research. American Schools of Oriental Research. 328 (328). pp. 1-30.
  • Mills, Stuart J.; Hatert, Frédéric; Nickel, Ernest H.; Ferraris, Giovanni (2009). "The standardisation of mineral group hierarchies: application to recent nomenclature proposals". Eur. J. Mineral. 21: 1073–1080. doi:10.1127/0935-1221/2009/0021-1994
  • Weeks, Mary Elvira; Leichester, Henry M. (1968). "Elements Known to the Ancients". Discovery of the Elements. Easton, PA: Journal of Chemical Education. ISBN 0-7661-3872-0.