One of the answers to What are the factors that caused the new world civilizations to be less technologically advanced than the old world? made an interesting statement:

in terms of metalworking, the lack of easily exploited tin deposits in the Americas means that a bronze age never took off. There was a copper-working culture surrounding the Great Lakes, and it pre-dated the chalcolithic in the old world by a few thousand years, but this lasted only as long as the accessible copper ore did.

Which New World civilizations had knowledge of combining tin and copper to make bronze? How much tin would have been readily available to pre-columbian civilizations? Did the Copper Age really start in the New World before it started in the Old World?

1 Answer 1


Interesting. I'd never heard this before, so I went digging myself.

It appears that Michigan's prehistory of copper working really fired some people's imaginations. If you look there are even fanciful stories about Phonecians crossing the Atlantic to get at Great Lakes copper!

There's a great paper online by what appears to be a very frustrated Archeologist (Susan R. Martin) called The State of our Knowlege about Ancient Copper Mining in Michigan, where she rails against the hookum pseudo-science writers have been perpetuating on this topic, and tries to set the record straight from an actual archeological standpoint.

MYTH: The second misstatement has to do with the duration of the prehistoric mining era, which is quoted to last from 3000 B.C. to 900 A.D. (Sodders 1990:12).

FACT: The duration of prehistoric mining is really much longer than this rough estimate. The dates and ranges of time for prehistoric copper use are really from about seven thousand years ago to protohistoric times. Suites of dates from the Upper Peninsula and nearby areas make it clear that the age of the use of copper lasts longer and extends farther than Sodders suggests. It does NOT extend as far as Phoenicia or the European Bronze Age, however!

(emphasis mine).

What little I can read online of The Metal Industry of the Aztecs, by George Brinton Phillips appears to be saying that the indigenous Mexicans had access to copper, but not enough to make everyday use of. However, when the Spaniards came, they found enough tin deposits around to start making their own bronze (for cannons), so it's not like the supplies weren't there for those who knew how to use them.

In South America the Moche actually did use some bronze, but not for common tools or weaponry. The Inca later started to adapt bronze to such mundane uses, but it was still an expensive material for them. Perhaps they would have soon developed their own proper bronze age, had Pizarro not intervened.

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    Also worth noting that there was enough native copper available that it could be had without smelting. Seems there were several tribes doing this, even the Eskimos (see Copper Inuit). The article on Native copper says the Michigan site is the largest native copper deposit in the world. Bolivia has another major deposit.
    – Bryce
    Commented Jul 5, 2012 at 21:02
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    In contrast, tin only appears as an ore (cassiterite), so you'd need to know smelting. According to the Tin page, there are large deposits of it in South America, but sounds like not so much in North America.
    – Bryce
    Commented Jul 5, 2012 at 21:11
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    @Bryce - I do know that the first bronzes in the near east were arsenic based, not Tin based. In their case at least, it appears Tin may have been only added to achieve the same effect with ores that didn't naturally have enough arsenic in them and when arsenic wasn't available to be added. It could be that development of bronze use in the Americas was slowed by not having natural arsenic bronzes available to get them started. South America, it turns out, is one of the places where natural arsenic bronze alloys are found.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 5, 2012 at 21:26
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    The Tin mining page vaguely says "in the Americas tin exploitation began around 1000 AD", but without sources. Yeah, Ecuador and Peru seem to have had arsenical bronze.
    – Bryce
    Commented Jul 5, 2012 at 21:42

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