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I'm curious about the evolution of the tomahawk among (North American) Native American peoples like the Algonquin. I assume early versions of the tomahawk had the head made from stone (please correct me if I am wrong) but most tomahawks you see today are made from metal. I would like to know when such a transition took place and what factors played a role in it.

Was that transition made fairly late, such as by European adoption of the tomahawk which they perhaps sold to/traded with Native Americans, or did Native Americans make their own metal tomahawks? If the latter is indeed the case, around what time did they begin using metal?

One StackExchange answer to a question about metallurgy among Native Americans mentions that "The Incas were known to arm their soldiers with bronze axes and iron knives to the tens of thousands", but that doesn't necessarily mean other Native American peoples had the same resources for metal weapons and tools.

Edit: I still have not found the first two answers below entirely satisfactory, either due to focus (South America instead of North America) or the sources not being very up-to-date (sources approximately a century old cited for copper production), despite awarding the bounty. So I have left this question marked as unanswered in hopes of additional and clearer answers based on literature more current than the early 20th century.

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    Please cite all non-trivial assertions (such as "It seems like Native Americans would have developed advanced metallurgy techniques before European settlers arrived.") Then please limit yourself to one question per post. – Pieter Geerkens Jun 25 '18 at 14:09
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    This link is a good place to start. I recall metal tomahawks were valuable trading items post-contact, so there was demand, but remember that metalworking is difficult, time-consuming, and requires great investment. If your competitors aren't also using lots of metal weapons and armor the impetus to develop on that route is probably limited. ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… ) – Era Jun 25 '18 at 14:19
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    I have reworded the OP. The way I worded it at first might have left the incorrect impression that I thought Native Americans could only have developed metal tomahawks if they had assistance from European technological advancements, and perhaps I over compensated when I edited it by saying they may have developed advanced metallurgy. However, I did read the SE answer I have now cited prior to writing it, so I took that as some evidence that advanced metallurgy existed in the New World. – SeligkeitIstInGott Jun 25 '18 at 14:20
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    @SeligkeitIstInGott: Done. – Pieter Geerkens Jun 25 '18 at 14:34
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    I appreciate it. Thanks for the constructive criticism. – SeligkeitIstInGott Jun 25 '18 at 14:38
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+50

Metallurgy in North America above the Rio Grande rarely advanced beyond the cold working of native copper, an item which was common enough to be an exported from the upper peninsula of Michigan, even during the pre-Columbian era.

In THE PRIMITIVE COPPER INDUSTRY OF AMERICA, by George Brinton Phillips (1925), an analysis of Michigan native copper is reported; it is found to be 99.9% pure, with the main impurity being silver. OTOH, European refined copper is only 98% pure, with a variety of impurities. This makes it easy to tell native copper from later European imports.

The article then traces locations where copper artifacts have been found, with vast numbers in Wisconsin, where nuggets from Michigan were carried by glaciers, but also including Indian mounds throughout the midwest, and even in the southern states. Most of these pre-date European contact, often by hundreds of years. The author notes that though much of this copper is hardened by cold working, none has been melted or cast, nor is there any bronze. The theory then, as now, is that this copper moved from Michigan and Wisconsin through native trade networks. Copper would be a very expensive trade good, which is why it is often found made into ceremonial or figurative items. enter image description here

Early descriptions of the tomahawk are inconsistent; by 1650 we have this description of native American armaments: "Their weapons formerly were bows and arrows, with a war club hung to the arm, and a square shield which covered the body up to the shoulders; . . . At present many of them use fire arms, which they prize highly and learn to use dexterously. They spare no pains in procuring guns and ammunition, for which they trade with the Christians at a dear rate, At present they also use small axes (tomahawks) instead of their war-clubs." (see p. 271 of the long article "The Tomahawk", link given below).

I found several worked stones, similar to these, on our family farm, near Ypsilanti, Michigan.

So it is not surprising that the native American tomahawk was a stone implement. Metal blades were introduced by European traders, English, Dutch, and French, by the early 1600s, who found a ready market among the eastern woodlands natives. A brief history is given here and here. enter image description here

Also see the long article on "The Tomahawk", which appeared in the American Anthropologist (1908). The image of stone tomahawks is borrowed from this article; the manufactured steel pipe tomahawk, dated to the early 1800's, is from the Wikipedia article.

Pipe tomahawk from early 1800s

So the answer is no; native Americans of the North Atlantic coast did not make metal axes; they used stone axes, as shown above. These were immediately replaced with European hand axes, later modified to the modern tomahawk form, ash shown here. This trade began immediately upon contact, French, Dutch, and English, from Canada on down the Atlantic coast. These, in turn, were traded into the interior.

  • Can you elaborate on which European traders? The Dutch, French, English, etc.? – SeligkeitIstInGott Jun 25 '18 at 21:22
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    Certainly the British, as the British navy's boarding axe gives the design for the early metal tomahawk (see the links above). Though the Dutch and the French would have been selling similar tools in their respective areas of control, with somewhat different designs. – Peter Diehr Jun 25 '18 at 23:41
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    Gotta be careful with absolutes in this area. For example, excavators found around 2000 that metal-workers at Cahokia were actually practicing Annealiation, which is a bit beyond cold working. The main thing they seemed to be missing in the Americas was enough metal-working for it to become more than a luxury item. – T.E.D. Jun 26 '18 at 13:24
  • @PeterDiehr Can you fill out this in a little more detail? Preferably something from a formal Encyclopedia (not Wikipedia) like Brittannica or something fixed that can be cited in a formal manner. More granular details such as this is kind of what I was hoping for: In a book I found called "Native American Weapons" by Colin F. Taylor it says: "These later weapons, such at the pipe tomahawk, knives, axes, arrow and spear heads, were generally based on native designs but replaced stone, bone, horn and hardened woods with iron and steel." (Pg.6). This might suggest metal began with the pipe t.~~. – SeligkeitIstInGott Jun 28 '18 at 2:48
  • Maybe you could edit your original question, and remove the parts about Incas; geographical limits help to clarify the bounds. – Peter Diehr Jun 28 '18 at 20:07
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It appears that Peruvians did this (although the word "tomahawk" is probably misapplied if used on South American weaponry). The Met has multiple copper axe-heads from that area, at least one of which may date to as early as the 3rd Century BC. There seems to be a common theme with these Peruvian axe heads to have a functional blade, but a decorated back end.

enter image description here

They also had their own unique metal ceremonial weapon, the Tumi. It occupies an interesting middle ground between a hand-axe and a knife.

enter image description here

Some copper axe heads have also been found at Mississippian sites, such as Etowa, and Spiro. enter image description here

Earlier Hopewell sites have also been found to contain copper axes, although they generally show no signs of wear, so they don't appear to have been everyday tools.

The metal axe finds disappear about the time the Mississippians went into decline, so most likely no living European ever witnessed a native North American using a native metal axe.

There are numerous first-hand reports from Europeans of Native Americans trading for (and in many cases working traded) iron, including some of the nomadic hunting nations such as the Inuit. So its reasonable to say that they were routinely using iron rather than stone as soon as Europeans made it available to them in sufficient quantities. So pretty much immediately upon contact.

  • Thanks. If you can add some additional information about the specifically North American tomahawk, including the pipe tomahawk (seems to be a European/Indian hybrid from what I've read) I'll consider marking this as the answer. I also heard something about some tomahawks in the 1600s using steel but am unsure if that is accurate. – SeligkeitIstInGott Jun 26 '18 at 18:04
  • In partial self-answering I found a book called "Native American Weapons" by Colin F. Taylor which says: "These later weapons, such at the pipe tomahawk, knives, axes, arrow and spear heads, were generally based on native designs but replaced stone, bone, horn and hardened woods with iron and steel." (Pg.6) Source: books.google.com/… – SeligkeitIstInGott Jun 26 '18 at 18:08
  • Interesting items, but these seem to be ceremonial axes, and not tomahawks. – Peter Diehr Jun 26 '18 at 21:26
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    @PeterDiehr - That is true for the Hopewell and Peruvian finds. There were enough of them found in the Mississippian "mounds" (and the ones I've seen are so plain looking) that I'm not 100% sure for those. However, I don't see anything in the question specifying the "tomahawks" can't be ceremonial. I did try to call out the 100% ceremonial ones, in case it does matter. – T.E.D. Jun 26 '18 at 21:40
  • @T.E.D. Can you add details above on the North American tomahawk and perhaps the pipe tomahawk? The post as it stands is a little too focused on South American axes and not the North American tomahawk - so while quality information I can't accept the answer as is since it seems a bit off the topic of tomahawks specifically. – SeligkeitIstInGott Jun 27 '18 at 16:48
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Yes, of course, American Indians used metal or copper axes, usually the celt type in the Archaic and Woodland eras. The copper celt was a woodworking tool used as an axe, but most tools, especially axes, were also used as weapons. There were also full grooved axes and even the 3/4 grooved axes - used as axes (cutting down trees, splitting into timber and lumber, etc.) and as weapons. Don Spohn Ph. D. Great Lakes Copper Research, Founder & President The Prehistoric Copper Artifact Journal, Editor and Producer

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