Colombian Amber

by Dr. Robert E. Woodruff
Emeritus Taxonomist,
Florida State Collection of Arthropods


Resins are produced by many trees and other plants; Frankincense of the Bible is one of these. Peach and Cherry trees produce resins that children often use as chewing gum. No botanist or paleontologist knows when resins were first produced, but we know it was probably more than 100 million years ago. They are produced to heal wounds, just as our blood coagulates to seal injuries.

There is no doubt that these resins have been produced continuously since they first occured. Because they are affected little by the elements, resins are similar to their original form. Only a few volatile oils are eliminated by time and burial (e.g., in marine sediments that are 3000 ft. elevation now). We use Canadian Balsam as the most permanent sealant for cover slips on microscope slides.

Unfortunately, no one can presently date these resins by any definitive tests. Because they have been continuously produced, there are no drastic changes from one geological period to another. We can infer age, if we know the age of a sedimentary deposit in which they are found (this would be a minimum, because older material could have been redeposited).

There are those (including several scientists) that insist that the word amber must be reserved for certain age resins. With such a continuous resin production, and no clear dating, it could all be called amber. It is a semantic argument, & those who sell Baltic, Dominican, & Mexican "amber" do not want to use the term for any that might be more recent. Obviously a commercial bias is present. They prefer to use the term "copal".

Strictly speaking, the Aztec word "copal" is used for all resins! They do not distinguish the Miocene deposits from southern Mexico from the recent resin collected for incense today. Therefore it should not be redefined to fit some new arbitrary definition based on age. It is considered lower class only because of these commercial interests.

We have Cretaceous amber (at least 65 million years old) and much Oligocene & Miocene amber, as well as Pliocene (Africa), and many others. We have no dates or specific geological information on Colombian amber. Because of it's color and hardness, we believe it may be Pliocene or Pleistocene (as is some of the Dominican amber from Cotui). Studies underway may clarify the deposits, but evidence suggests that there may be varying geological formations & ages.

Mankind (depending on the anthropologist's definition thereof) has been on earth only 3-5 million years. Certainly the Olduvai specimens are fossils (both men & animals) and extremely valuable for study of human evolution. If we assume the Colombian amber is this recent, it still has extremely important value for those studying the fossils. Studies of biodiversity, biogeography, ecology, and evolution, all benefit from the scientific description of these amber fossils.

Age is relative, the old man said, but old is not necessarily better. To call the Colombian material anything other than amber is a misnomer! Logically, we should just call everything "resin", with qualifying adjectives of origin or geological formation. I doubt that this would be acceptable to most "amber" dealers!