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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
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    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
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    @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
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    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
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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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    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
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    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
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    @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
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    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. – user4139 Jan 20 '15 at 21:08
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    This argument sounds very false: Incas and Aztecs had many surpluses, due to the high nutritious value of maze, actually higher than in Europe. Following this argument, Northern Europe or the steppes must have much chance of using metallurgy than the central american empires. – Greg Aug 15 at 5:35
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All these answers seem to have overlooked the obvious. To make bronze, you need to mix copper and tin. There are few tin deposits in North America (outside of Alaska), and most of them are not workable without at least 19th century mining technology. So no tin, no bronze. No bronze, probably no easy path to ironworking.

https://www.sciencebase.gov/catalog/item/imap/5ae87432e4b0e2c2dd358003

Europe & Asia Minor, OTOH, had copper & tin in relative proximity, so bronze could be discovered by the accidental mixing of the two, and then further developed: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tin_sources_and_trade_in_ancient_times

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    You can use arsenic instead of tin to make bronze. If they had arsenic, they could have made it to the bronze age. – Ulf Tennfors Aug 15 at 6:06
  • @Ulf Tennfors: Yes, if they had arsenic (someone else can look up arsenic deposits in North America :-)), and if the bronze workers can keep from being killed off by the arsenic fumes. – jamesqf Aug 15 at 17:48
  • I looked it up at Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arsenical_bronze . At least South America did use arsenical bronze. About health, they mention it too. Likely they did have health problems, but we don't know if they realised the cause for these problems. – Ulf Tennfors Aug 15 at 17:55
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    How much do we know about how hard it is to discover either Bronze or Iron? To quote Guns, Germs and Steel from memory, he says writing was discovered independently about 7 times. We know that bronze and iron were used in Europe and Asia, but did it flow from 1 area to the others or was it discovered multiple times? If it's really hard to discover something from scratch, it might just be that, well they just didn't do it and couldn't copy it from anyone else. It's not like we genius Europeans discovered iron, the Hittites did it for us. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Aug 15 at 18:44
  • @Italian Philosopher: IDK how hard it would be given the necessary raw materials, but I'm pretty sure that without those materials, it's not going to happen. It's just like the Indians couldn't domesticate horses before the Spaniards brought them, but the Plains tribes got very good at it once they were available. – jamesqf Aug 16 at 4:44
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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.

  • Funny, most examples you gave to "hard to answer" questions are actually questions that are throughout studied and not that hard to answer... – Greg Aug 15 at 5:38
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There's proof that Native Americans settled the Americas as far back as 9000/8000 B.C. based on the Folsom site. That's around the time the cradle of western civ was being cunieformed in the Middle East and Egypt.

My personal theory is that the Middle East was a bridge between Europe, Africa, and Asia - allowing the trade of technologies through several different conquests like Alexander, the Roman Empire, the Huns, the Ottoman Empire, Viking raiders, etc. By sharing technological discoveries through trade or subjugation, the regions of Europe, Northern Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Indo-Asia were able to continue to grow. If a culture was more insular and less inclined to adopt new technologies, or did not find the technologies useful for their current way of life, they suffered for it through lack of growth.

So why did Europe develop so much technology? I want to say because it was smaller than the other continents which made it easier to share technology, diverse because of its location, and had a variety of seasons - which means they had to solve problems for heat, problems for cold, exposure to a variety of diseases and building immunity, problems for travel by land, sea, river - so a whole lot of trading was going down - and much of it facilitated by the roadways set up via the Roman Empire, then the forceful conversion to Christianity to make Latin a common language to share scientific discovery - ironically enough.

But all of this is my speculation. The Americas did have abundance in game and native plants, and many civilizations did develop and flourish to the extent of the Egyptian civilization prior to the Roman Empire. But it's my personal theory that the land was too large and the population was fairly sparse throughout it, leading to several insular civilizations, with only a few developing the roads and trade routes that led to further technological development. It's as if the Irish were never invaded by the Romans, the Vikings, or the Saxons, and thus exposed to written language, architecture, and other technological advances.

But they had 10000 years, and surely tribes had many exchanges between them. So perhaps throughout all the 10000 years, due to the insularity of each civilization, they were faced again and again with huge problems similar to that of the Black Plague in Europe, the changing climate, famine, and other things that can cut a promising technological development short. Perhaps the abundance of game was actually a burden to the development of other technologies - because by using all of the bones and fangs and horns of an animal as weapons, why would you need metal weaponry, which leads eventually to helmets and metal armor, which leads to long-range weaponry... you get the gist.

But truly, I think the problem is that, geographically, there was no Middle East in the American continents. No small area of concentrated trade and science to act as the cradle of Native American civilization, spreading the secrets of farming and metal-working, religion and the number zero.

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    +1 for using cunieformed as a verb – RedSonja Sep 21 '17 at 10:58
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Seeing technology as linear, from primitive to advanced, adds confusion. Why bother to invent the wheel if you live in the Andes mountains and don't have draft animals? Why bother with metal technology if you live in the wet rainy tropics or sub-tropics where rust would be a problem? Why create weapons that kill large numbers of people if you live in small tribes? Technology isn't linear. People develop and use technologies that are useful to them, and can be made from the resources readily available to them. It's hard to answer why none of the peoples of the Americas relied heavily on metal technologies, but if you look at the different peoples individually, from small tribes to large empires, from the tropics to the tundra, it is easier to understand why a particular group didn't develop certain technology.

  • Very interesting point, +1, though it doesn't fully answer the question. – Greg Aug 15 at 5:40
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The 'Copper Country' in the Keweenaw Peninsula of the Upper Peninusula of Michigan has been a source of metal for a very long time.

From Wikipedia (emphasis mine)

Native Americans were the first to mine and work the copper of Lake Superior and the Keweenaw Peninsula of northern Michigan between 5000 BCE and 1200 BCE. The natives used this copper to produce tools. Archaeological expeditions in the Keweenaw Peninsula and Isle Royale revealed the existence of copper producing pits and hammering stones which were used to work the copper.[3] Some authors have suggested that as much as 1.5 billion pounds of copper was extracted during this period, but some archaeologists consider such high figures as "ill-constructed estimates" and that the actual figure is unknown. Archaeologist Susan Martin wrote that "“The competent excavation of many prehistoric archaeological sites in the Lake Superior basin reveals the continuous use of copper throughout the prehistoric time range, in association with all of the other items of material culture (projectile points, pottery and the like) that are without a doubt the products of native technologies. Many of these sites have been dated reliably by radiocarbon means.... Clearly, copper-working continues up until the years of aboriginal contact with seventeenth-century Europeans. The speculators could at least acknowledge these facts rather than pretend that the association of copper with indigenous people doesn’t exist.

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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
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    -1; while true, it doesn't address the question. Why didn't NA use bronze or iron in any quantity? Copper, gold, and silver for decoration and a few tools, sure, but there's a world of difference between that and the extensive metallurgy of the Old World. "...iron knives to the tens of thousands" definitely needs a citation. – user4139 Jan 20 '15 at 21:11
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    @TylerDurden Being of the same ethnicity might make one a source for contemporary data about a people, but not necessarily for historical data. – Wayne Conrad May 31 '17 at 17:46
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    If it makes you feel better, remember the Europeans paid the price for the diseases they carried; 50% child mortality. Right up to the 19th century. – RedSonja Sep 21 '17 at 10:57

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