The term “element” is used for atoms with a given number of protons (regardless of whether or not they are ionized or chemically bonded, e.g. hydrogen in water) as well as for a pure chemical substance consisting of a single element (e.g. hydrogen gas). For the second meaning, the terms “elementary substance” and “simple substance” have been suggested, but they have not gained much acceptance in English chemical literature, whereas in some other languages their equivalent is widely used (e.g. French corps simple, Russian простое вещество). A single element can form multiple substances differing in their structure; they are called allotropes of the element.
When different elements are chemically combined, with the atoms held together by chemical bonds, they form chemical compounds. Only a minority of elements are found uncombined as relatively pure minerals. Among the more common of such native elements are copper, silver, gold, carbon (as coal, graphite, or diamonds), and sulfur. All but a few of the most inert elements, such as noble gases and noble metals, are usually found on Earth in chemically combined form, as chemical compounds.
While about 32 of the chemical elements occur on Earth in native uncombined forms, most of these occur as mixtures. For example, atmospheric air is primarily a mixture of nitrogen, oxygen, and argon, and native solid elements occur in alloys, such as that of iron and nickel.
The history of the discovery and use of the elements began with primitive human societies that found native elements like carbon, sulfur, copper and gold. Later civilizations extracted elemental copper, tin, lead and iron from their ores by smelting, using charcoal. Alchemists and chemists subsequently identified many more; all of the naturally occurring elements were known by 1950.