Let's talk about The Iron Age.

A lot of the advances in technology have been built upon the advances that came before. Only logical. While it’s true that many visionaries forsee technology decades before it can be created, most inventions build upon what came before.

This brings my wandering mind to The Iron Age. Wikkipedia gives a lovely overview.

Here’s my question- how could anyone make the cognitive leap from a huge astonishingly heavy rounded chunk of meteorite to a very sharp metal blade used for hunting or cutting? Not to insult the intellect of our ancient ancestors, but if you think about it, even the most intelligent person does not exist in a mental vacuum.

They exist using their native intelligence coupled with the accumulated information gleaned over their lifetime. In ancient Egypt where the Iron Age is said to have originated, I am trying to understand how- lacking ANY frame of reference as to metallurgy or what a meteorite was or what it was made of or what the tensile strength MIGHT have been if one were to figure out a way to section off shards of a meteorite- anyone could have thought of using a hunk of stone for a sharpened weapon.

It is one thing to see molten lava and find nearby razor-sharp shards of pumice, suitable for flaying flesh. Ah hah- lava can cool into hard sharp surfaces ! But I struggle with the idea that anyone could see a meteorite and lacking any prior knowledge, think of making tools out of it.

Some of the greatest inventions have been based on need and prior knowledge or the desire to create out of whole cloth using information at hand. The catapult, the wireless, the wheel, etc. But this? I don’t see it. No, I don’t think Space Aliens gifted the Ancients with the power of Iron… but I do struggle to see how anyone could have made the cognitive leap that resulted in crafting Iron.



I think it’s fairly simple. People had been taking huge astonishingly heavy rounded chunks of rocks and fashioning them into axe blades for hundreds of thousands of years. So the concept of a blade, and of extracting a useful shape out of a not-useful shape predates the Iron Age. It was just the application of an old technique to a new material.

Remember that the Iron Age was preceded in most places by the Bronze Age. Copper and bronze working is a lot easier to stumble upon accidentally. Build a fire pit with the right greenish rocks and you might find yourself discovering little shiny bits of yellow metal in the ash. These little bits of metal are soft enough to be hammered into something pretty with a rock. Expand your operation and you can get enough bronze to make a tool. Spend a thousand years or so improving your technique and you have a decent technological base for smelting iron.

The use of iron generally follows the use of bronze, and certainly some other metals technology. Although the skills are somewhat different, the concept is similar enough that no great leap of genius is needed to heft an iron meteorite and say, “Whoa! That could smack the shit out of a musk ox! And if you sharpened it, you could split its skull easy!” Iron working was a bit more involved than working other metals, but not any particularly difficult conceptual changes from Bronze working. It’s also true that a smith would quickly recognize the inherent strength implied by the difficulty in working meteoric iron.

Crucible methods took a bit of time, but bloom furnace iron, and even steel are all pretty much multiple trial and error method learning curves. By the time you have a metals technology in any metal; you get interested in extra heavy rocks of all sorts. Eventually you find an ore you can use.


As Pochacco has already mentioned, the Iron Age was preceded by the Bronze Age (and various sidelights in early writings like Homer and the Old Testament give us a hint of the transition between them). But it needs to be noted that unlike most other “working” metals (as opposed to gold, silver, and such), copper sometimes occurs as the native metal. Paleoanthropologists hotly dispute the possible existence of a period between the Neolithic (New Stone Age, villages and agriculture but no metals) and the Bronze Age, generally termed the Chalcolithic, in which native copper was used more or less as a rock with unique properties – rather than chipping flint to get a sharp edge for a knife or spearhead, you used a piece of copper hammered into sharp point and/or edge.

The existence of native copper gave the people of the period a heads-up about metals – when somebody accidentally put a copper-ore rock in the fire and the ore reduced to molten copper metal, some unsung genius invented rudimentary smelting and metallurgy.

As a slight aside, but mentioned in the OP, I have wondered about the wheel. It seems so obvious and is used as an example in all early technology, however, it is my understanding that it was undiscovered in the New World until the arrival of the Europeans.
How can this be? With the Inca, Mayan, and Aztec civilizations and construction of cities and roads and such; no wheel? And those that claim Space Aliens helped with the pyramids, it seems they might have mentioned this. “*Ya know, all this dragging of stuff to and fro would be waaay easier if…” * might have been a really big help.
On this line of thinking, imagine the first scout or hunting party that came across a set of wagon wheel tracks in the dirt without ever seeing a wagon. And between them, horse tracks when none had ever been seen before.
I’m jus’ sayin’…

I too had read that the wheel did not exist in the New World. Incredible.

As for the copper and metallurgy, that kind of hammers home my point. ( heh. heh heh.). Our neolithic metallurgist ( whose name may well have been Earl ) watched copper melt and shed it’s ore and look darned pretty, and more malleable ( softened from the heat, eh? ). I can see how he or she might have made the cognitive leap and started to mess around with the pretty coppery stuff.

But please- a huge round chunk of meteorite? I’ve TOUCHED meteorites. I’ve gazed upon them with lust in my heart. Never could I imagine that smooth and yet slightly roundedly pockmarked item being the same stuff, or having the potential to become, a sharp or dangerous instrument.

Plus, how in the heck did they cut them down into blades? What did they use? Copper? Stone? Last time I checked, the iron ore in yer average pedestrian meteorite was wicked dense.

The Master speaks

I would have gone with the Gold Duster over the Impala, but who am I to second guess the greatest intellectual power we’ve witnessed since Philo Farnsworth ? :smiley:

Great link! I once read paper that put forth this very concept; that the variety of large domesticated animals was the reason the Europeans outstripped most the the rest of the ancient world. It was the horse, for transportation and plow work, with cattle and pigs for stable and controllable food sources that gave then the jump start they need. As The Master said, the llama was used but to a much more limited extent. I recall reading the fist New World peoples to see a Conquistador on horseback mistook it as a single animal. Remembering the armor that covered both it is easy to understand.