A "sensational" discovery of 75-century-old copper tools in Serbia is compelling scientists to reconsider existing theories about where and when man began using metal. Copper tools - axes, hammers, hooks and needles - were found interspersed with other artefacts from a settlement that burned down some 7,000 years ago at Plocnik, near Prokuplje and 200 kilometres south of Belgrade.

The village had been there for some eight centuries before its demise. After the big fire, its unknown inhabitants moved away. But what they left behind points to man's earliest known extraction and shaping of metal.

"It really is sensational," said Ernst Pernicka, a renowned archaeology professor at Germany's Tuebingen University who recently visited the Ploce locality.

Scientists had previously believed that the mining, extraction and manipulation of copper began in Asia Minor, spreading from there.

With the find in Plocnik, parallel and simultaneous developments of those skills in several places now seem more likely, Mr. Pernicka said.

Indeed, the tools discovered in southern Serbia were made some 75 centuries ago - up to eight centuries older than what has been found to date.

The site at Plocnik, believed to cover some 120 hectares in all, is buried under several metres of soil. Serbian archaeologists have so far exposed three homes - the largest of them, measuring eight by

five metres, discovered this year.

The layer of earth it stood on is still blackened from the scorching heat that destroyed the village. It is unclear what caused the fire, but no damage that would indicate an outside attack has been found.

The huts collapsed on their contents, with mud bricks and ashes burying all that was inside - pottery, statues, tools and a worktable. After dusting the still embedded artifacts off, archaeologists began extracting them, most of all hoping to find more precious copper tools.

Scientists are debating whether the Plocnik village led the world to the Copper Age in the 6th millennium BC, particularly as remains of primitive copper smelters were recently found not far away, near today's mines and smelters in Majdanpek and Bor.

The find, which stems from "certainly very, very early in the Copper Age," was a very lucky one, said another expert from Tuebingen, Raiko Kraus.

The Ploce locality was discovered by railroad builders in 1927, but was largely disregarded until 1996, when serious excavations began, eventually yielding the sensational finds.

According to Mr. Krause, old settlements may similarly surface in eastern Anatolia when Turkey launches some massive earth-moving project, such as building a dam.

It remains unclear why a comparatively large quantity of copper tools were found at Plocnik. The head archaeologist on site, Julka Kuzmanovic-Cvetkovic, said that the village may have been a tool- making or trading centre.

There is also much more to be learned about the ancient inhabitants, apart from the key question of how man developed his tools.

"These people were not wild," Kuzmanovic-Cvetkovic stressed, pointing to fine pieces such as statuettes. "They had finely combed hair and adorned themselves with necklaces."

One statue of a woman shows her wearing some sort of a mini skirt.

Others wore long and broad scarves. Kuzmanovic-Cvetkovic actually helped a Serbian fashion designer set up a show inspired by the clothes of the people who lived there millennia earlier.

Whatever remains to be found at Ploce and elsewhere, "mankind took a major step toward the modern era" during that time, Mr. Pernicka said.

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