There is a strong association between regions containing orogenic gold mineralization and exploitation of placer gold, although, in many cases, the nature of the source mineralization for these placer deposits remains unclear. This study describes a novel approach to evaluating the economic potential of in situ orogenic gold mineralization through characterization of both lode and placer gold mineralogy, followed by synthesis of this information with records of both mineral occurrences and historical placer mining. The northern Cariboo Gold District in east-central British Columbia, Canada, was chosen as a location for the study because of the gold endowment of the area (1.2 million ounces [Moz] of lode gold and between 0.5 and 3 Moz. of placer gold) and the information available from both placer and lode gold mining.

Compositional analysis of 533 gold grains from 21 lode localities and 1,914 gold grains from 30 placer localities from throughout the Cariboo Gold District has identified four main compositional types in terms of their alloy compositions and associated suite of mineral inclusions revealed in polished section. A distinctive low (4–7%)-Ag gold that exhibits a strong Bi association in the mineral inclusion suite is geographically limited to the Wells area, where it is recorded in both lode mineralization and its placer expression. Regionally pervasive mineralization yields gold of binary Au-Ag alloy and a simple inclusion suite of sulfides and sulfarsenides. Gold in most large placers in trunk drainages was derived from multiple (mostly small) occurrences of this type. The nature of compositional variation between gold grains liberated from hypogene ore has informed the history of episodic mineralization and suggests multiple stages of gold emplacement at some localities, while others are dominated by gold deposited in a single stage.

The new information from gold grain analysis has been considered in the context of other information. Classification of a placer as either allocthonous or autocthonous both informs interpretation of compositional characteristics of the detrital gold grains and provides information on distance to the hypogene source. Mineral inclusion assemblages observed in sample populations of placer gold grains have been correlated with reports of hypogene vein mineralogy described in mineral occurrence records to clarify the geographical extent of specific mineralization types. The compositional range of alloys of different gold types has been compared to historical records of gold production and gold fineness (Au-Ag ratio) to reconstruct the size and distribution of hypogene sources prior to erosion.

Synthesis of gold compositional studies with other publicly accessible data sets provides a new generic approach capable of evaluating the most attractive targets for future exploration and highlighting compositional signatures of placer gold which relate to undiscovered in situ sources.

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