They could mine copper and silver, but not iron. Was there a reason to not use such materials to build advanced mining tools to work with Iron? What was their main limitation? Couldn't they build something like a big Tumi but... pike-shaped as a tool suitable for mining iron?

Edit: Tumi is a parallel of any sharp tool, e.g. knives. They had pretty good primitive metallurgy to develop that, to the extent of even using them as currency in pacific sea regions. So my question is what was their limitation to work with iron.

Edit 2: In particular when bronze and copper were used to non-religious purposes (to this extent, Iron could have been used as well, but was not the case).

Edit 3: I fixed the question title a bit since stuff about former civilizations was wrong, and being wrong is what makes me ask even more this question.

The claim is from wikipedia.

Tumis had many shapes and purposes.

These were used as currency.

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    I fixed the question a bit. May 4, 2016 at 15:53
  • It is believed that only iron can work iron, which is quite a chicken and egg problem. This can be solved by finding pre-smelted iron in the form of a meteorite.
    – Joshua
    May 5, 2016 at 16:22

2 Answers 2


Iron is not "mined" in its native form. The ores of iron, such as hematite, are oxides which are plentiful and can even be collected right off the surface of the earth with no mining involved at all. I myself have collected hematite and magnetite from stream beds right near where I live.

The difficulty in making iron is that it must be reduced from its oxide.

Obtaining copper and silver is much easier because these metals can be recovered from sulfates which only need to be roasted.

The American Indians failed to discover and exploit the technology of charcoal reduction of iron oxide.

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    @CGCampbell I mean all the aboriginal inhabitants of the Americas, north and south. May 4, 2016 at 17:29
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    Copper can be found as native metal in e.g. Michigan's Upper Peninsula (and per Wikipedia, in Bolivia), and was traded by the pre-Columbian people. Silver can also be found as the native metal, and of course gold frequently is.
    – jamesqf
    May 4, 2016 at 18:00
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    @jamesqf So what? You can find native iron-nickel meteorites, too. How does that have anything to do with my answer? May 4, 2016 at 18:12
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    @jamesqf Yeah, but that doesn't go contrary to Tyler's answer. They never learned to smelt the ores - that means they couldn't use them economically. One of the triggers of the industrial revolution in Europe was the availability of cheap steel (which had a lot to do with the availability of cheap coal and the process to make steel using coal). Early steels were also very much inferior to e.g. bronze, as well as much harder to make - iron only came to common use due to interruptions in trade (tin and copper are geologically very "separate", so bronze requires extensive trade).
    – Luaan
    May 5, 2016 at 7:13
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    Perhaps "never discovered" rather than "failed to discover". It suggests that it was their goal to smelt iron and they never made it.
    – CJ Dennis
    May 5, 2016 at 9:44

The reason is the same for which the Bronze Age existed in Europe and elsewhere. People knew how to make copper and bronze but did not know how to make iron. So there is nothing special about Americans in general and Peruvians in particular. They just did not discover the process. But I suppose they knew about meteoric iron.

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