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When Europeans started showing up in the New World, the native cultures were technologically far behind. Many still used stone tools: North American tribes used flint, while some Mesoamerican cultures used obsidian. Andean and other civilizations worked precious metals for decorative purposes. I was made aware in the comments that some cultures had indeed adopted bronze working, or even used meteoric iron. But on the whole, the use of hard metals like bronze and iron doesn't appear to have been nearly as widespread as in the Old World, despite many parts of the Americas having rich metal deposits.

So my question is, which cultures did make extensive use of metals for producing tools and weapons, and why did metalworking technology not become as prevalent in Pre-Colombian America as it did across Eurasia?

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1. They did use metal. Many cultures were bronze age. So your question's underlying premise is wrong. 2. I am nearly certain that "Guns, Gems and Steel" covers this pretty thoroughly. – DVK Dec 18 '11 at 14:24
If you expand that to Gold and Silver then the Inca and the various Mezo-Americans had enormous metalworking skills. – World Engineer Dec 19 '11 at 2:24
I'm thinking specifically of copper/bronze and iron for tools and weapons. I'm aware that some cultures used precious metals. – Travis Christian Dec 19 '11 at 15:55
@Travis - Great rewrite - I'm changing my potential downvote to +1. And get the book. It's worth it. – DVK Dec 19 '11 at 17:59
I hope "G,G, and Steel gives a better explanation than hunting and gathering as the reason NA did not create more iron weapons. The massive cities and artwork of the Incas, Aztecs proves the had specialist. So the question still has nor been answered " why did the NA never develop better iron weapons? Why did they not develop better armor?" Did it have more to do with the vastness if this continent and therefore unlike the Europeans, a environment less steeped in constant conflict? – user2032 Mar 16 '13 at 23:51
up vote 19 down vote accepted

I'm afraid I know nothing about which pre-Columbian cultures had any metalworking, but I can answer why metallurgy was, in 1492, very rare in the Americas but widespread in Eurasia.

Paraphrasing liberally from Guns, Germs and Steel, which I happen to be reading at the moment, Native American peoples were largely hunter-gatherers. Metalworking, like any specialised trade, is very unlikely for hunter-gatherer cultures, as having the time for individuals to develop craft specialisms requires a food surplus that can usually only be generated from agriculture, plus hunter-gatherer cultures are often nomadic, which rules out heavy metalworking equipment.

The reason why Native American peoples were hunter-gatherers is the premise of the bulk of the book. To oversimplify, there were two main factors:

  1. Almost all the large mammals died out from the Americas after the last Ice Age, meaning there were no domesticable animals (to pull ploughs and provide transport) until the arrival of horses with the Europeans. At the same time, there were much fewer useful seed-plants (with high protein content, as well as digestible carbohydrates) in the Americas, compared with all the grasses from the Near East.

    (As well as a lack of domesticable animals impacting on the productivity of farmland, it is thought that this also led to a greater preponderence of disease in Eurasia (plague, smallpox, measles etc), meaning that we were more likely to have inherent immunity, whereas Eurasian diseases could ― and did ― decimate the aboriginal inhabitants of the Americas.)

  2. Eurasia is longer on an east–west axis, whereas the Americas (and sub-Saharan Africa) are longer north–south. The east–west axis means that animals and plants can spread to areas of similar latitude (and, thus, of similar climate). The deserts and rainforests in the Americas, and the narrowness of the isthmus at Panama mean that domestication of plants and animals took an exceptionally long time to travel to other parts of the continent.

So, with neither domesticable animals nor usable crops, the hunter-gatherer cultures in the Americas did not have the food surpluses that are a prerequisite for specialised crafts, particularly metallurgy.

(Source: All of this is from my memory of the book, rather than looking up references. Errors are almost certainly mine, not those of Jared Diamond. You should, thus, all read the book, because it's very good, as well as probably more accurate than my summary.)

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Thank you. Trying to acquire reputation on these sites is something I find quite frustrating given my time constraints, particularly on sites where I'm pretty new (like this one). This happened to be something I know about that I noticed as I had time to kill last night ;o) – Owen Blacker Feb 21 '12 at 12:13
I should caveat that it's also a massive oversimplification of Jared Diamond's book, which is well worth a read by anyone interested in why certain civilisations ended on the top of the pile and why Native Americans and sub-Saharan Africans are still substantially poorer than the Eurasian civilisations that colonised their lands. – Owen Blacker Feb 21 '12 at 12:17
I can just imagine a (horseless) nomadic plains Indian tribe trying to follow a buffalo herd while dragging an anvil around with them on a dog-drawn Travois. upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c9/… – T.E.D. May 30 '12 at 14:45
@Owen Blacker You misquote "Guns...". The book clearly says there were developed agricultural civilizations (Aztec, Mayan, Inca, Missisipi-valley), so you cannot answer that "hunter-gatherer cultures in the Americas did not have the food surpluses". – kubanczyk Jan 17 '13 at 16:45
I believe Diamond and Blacker's point is not that agriculture was unknown in the New World, but that it was more difficult to develop and less productive than in the old, such that by the time Cortez showed up the NA were still largely neolithic. In another thousand years, the successors of the Mexica and Inca could well have developed advanced metallurgy, etc. – Jon of All Trades Jan 20 '15 at 21:08

First of all, a huge reason why my people were conquered is that we had no immunity to the diseases they carried. The people of Anahuac had huge deposits of metals. Working silver, gold, tin, bronze and iron, there were many sights catering to these true works. The Incas were known to arm their soldiers with bronze axes and iron knives to the tens of thousands. With a huge empire constantly expanding, the Incas held a population over 20 million and over 500000 soldiers.

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Do you have sources? – American Luke Sep 19 '12 at 23:51
One book ill refer is 1491 by Charles C. Munn. If u haven't read already – zacatec Sep 21 '12 at 14:13
This book? – American Luke Sep 21 '12 at 14:58
Yup 1491 by Charles C. Mann. People underestimate the history and the common false facts of native people on this one huge landmass. How do u think the sophisticated cities were built with.. rock cutting rock. I don't think so to much work and time especially knowing they were Mathias – zacatec Sep 21 '12 at 21:18
Sorry got caught off. Like I said knowing they were mathematicians, biochemicals, city planners. Etc. A people with great ambition would not settle for equal or less especially empires expanding their domain and influence. – zacatec Sep 21 '12 at 21:26

There is a Wikipedia article on the subject of Pre-Columbian metallurgy.

I would go farther than you in saying that ALL, not "most", new world indigenous cultures were based on non-metallic technology. It is true a few isolated cases of copper ornaments and such have been found, but in general, I know of no widespread use of metal tools or weapons anywhere in the Pre-Columbian world.

As for the cause of this, it is difficult to say. Why does any culture become technologically advanced, while another lags behind? Why was China still using bows and arrows when Japan was making rifles and cannons using European designs, even though Japan has a much smaller population than China, and is a younger culture? Why did England become so much more advanced than Spain, even though Spain had all the riches of Mexico at its disposal? Why is Estonia becoming an advanced technology nation, while its neighbors, Latvia and Lithuania, ramble on like primitive old Soviet satellites?

In fact, we can go way beyond metal with the same type of question. For example, why did the Indians not develop the limestone cycle and cement/mortar, which requires only rocks and a charcoal oven? This is a far simpler, easier and more lucrative technology than metalworking, yet the Indians failed to discover it. When Europeans settled America, one of the first things they built were limestone kilns, not iron bloomeries.

These are questions of the theory of civilization that have no easy answers.

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