The Disruption of Bronze

I pride myself on my hard-won sense of history. World history is probably the subject I’ve studied the most on my own, starting with Somerset Plantagenet Fry’s beautifully illustrated  DK History of the World at age 15.  I studied the thing obsessively for nearly a year, taking copious notes and neglecting my school history syllabus. It’s been the best intellectual investment of my life. Since then, I periodically return to history to refresh my brain whenever I think it my thinking is getting stale. Most recently, I’ve been reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. My tastes have gradually shifted from straightforward histories by modern historians to analytical histories with a specific angle, preferably written by historians from eras besides our own.

The big value to studying world history is that no matter how much you know or think you know, one new fact can completely rewire your perspectives. The biggest such surprise for me was understanding the real story (or as real as history ever gets) of how iron came to displace bronze, and what truly happened in the shift between the Bronze Age and the Iron Age.

What comes to mind when you think “bronze?” Hand-crafted artifacts, right?

What about iron? Big, modern, steel mills and skyscrapers, right? Iron metallurgy is obviously the more advanced and sophisticated industry in our time.

The Iron Age displaced the Bronze Age sometime in the late second millennium BC. The way the story is usually told, iron was what powered the rise of the obscure barbarian-nomads known as the Aryans throughout the ancient world.

You could be forgiven for thinking that this was a sudden event based on iron being suddenly discovered and turning out to be a “superior” material for weaponry, and the advantage accidentally happening to fall to the barbarian-nomads rather than the civilization centers.

Far from it.

Here’s the real (or “less wrong”) story in outline.

The Clue in the Tin

You see iron and bronze co-existed for a long time. Iron is a plentiful element, and can be found in relatively pure forms in meteorites (think of meteorites as the starter kits for iron metallurgy). Visit a geological museum sometime to see for yourself (I grew up in a steel town).

It is hard to smelt and work, but basically once you figure out some rudimentary metallurgy and can generate sufficiently high temperatures to work it, you can handle iron, at least in crude, brittle and easily rusted forms. Not quite steel, but then who cares about rust and extreme hardness if the objective is to split open the skull of another guy in the next 10 seconds.

Bronze on the other hand is a very difficult material to handle. There have been two forms in antiquity. The earlier Bronze Age was dominated by what is known as arsenical bronze. That’s copper alloyed with arsenic to make it harder. That’s not very different from iron. Copper is much scarcer and less widely-distributed of course, but it does occur all over the place. And fortunately, when you do find it, copper usually has trace arsenic contamination in its natural form. So you are starting with all the raw material you need.

The later Bronze Age though, relied on a much better material: tin bronze. Now this is where the story gets interesting. Tin is an extremely rare element. It only occurs in usable concentrations in a few isolated locations worldwide.

In fact known sources during the Bronze Age were in places like England, France, the Czech Republic and the Malay peninsula. Deep in barbarian-nomad lands of the time. As far as we can tell, tin was first mined somewhere in the Czech Republic around 2500 BC, and the practice spread to places like Britain and France by about 2000.

Notice something about that list? They are very far from the major Bronze Age urban civilizations around the Nile, in the Middle East and in the Indus Valley, of 4000-2000 BC or so.

This immediately implies that there must have been a globalized long-distance trade in tin connecting the farthest corners of Europe (and possibly Malaya) with the heart of the ancient world. Not only that, you are forced to recognize that the metallurgists of the day must have had sophisticated and deliberate alloying methods, since you cannot assume, as you might be tempted to in the case of arsenical bronze, that the ancients didn’t really know what they were doing. You cannot produce tin-bronze by accident. Tin implies skills, accurate measurements, technology, guild-style education, and land and sea trade of sufficient sophistication that you can call it an “industry.”

What’s more, the use of tin also implies that the Bronze Age civilizations didn’t just sit around inside their borders, enjoying their urban lifestyles. They must have actually traded somehow with the far corners of the barbarian-nomad world that eventually conquered them. Clearly the precursors of the Aryans and other nomadic peoples of the Bronze Age (including the Celts in Europe, the ethnic Malays, and so forth) must have had a lot of active contact with the urban civilizations (naive students of history often don’t get that humans had basically dispersed through the entire known world by 10,000 BC; “civilization” may have spread from a few centers, but people didn’t spread that way, they spread much earlier).

In fact, tin almost defines “civilization”: only the 3-4 centers of urban civilization of that period had the coordination capabilities necessary to arrange for the shipping of tin over land and sea, across long distances. It is well recognized that they had trade with each other, with different trade imbalances (there is clear evidence of land and sea trade among the Mesopotamian, Nile and Indus river valleys; the Yellow River portions of China were a little more disconnected at that time).

What is not as well recognized is that the evidence of commodities like tin indicates that these civilizations must have also traded extensively with the barbarian-nomad worlds in their interstices and beyond their borders in every direction.  The iron-wielding barbarians were not shadowy strangers who suddenly descended on the urban centers out of the shadows. They were marginal peoples with whom the civilizations had relationships.

So tin implies the existence of sophisticated international trade. I suspect it even means that tin was the first true commodity money (commodity monies don’t just emerge based on their physical properties and value; they must provide a raison d’etre for trade over long distances).

Iron vs. Bronze

So what about iron? Since it was all over the place, we cannot trace the origins of iron smelting properly, and in a sense there is no good answer to the question “where was iron discovered?” It was in use as a peripheral metal for a long period before it displaced bronze (possibly inside the Bronze Age civilizations and the barbarian-nomad margins). As the Wikipedia article says, with reference to iron use before the Iron Age:

Meteoric iron, or iron-nickel alloy, was used by various ancient peoples thousands of years before the Iron Age. This iron, being in its native metallic state, required no smelting of ores.By the Middle Bronze Age, increasing numbers of smelted iron objects (distinguishable from meteoric iron by the lack of nickel in the product) appeared throughout Anatolia, Mesopotamia, the Indian subcontinent, the Levant, the Mediterranean, and Egypt. The earliest systematic production and use of iron implements originates in Anatolia, beginning around 2000 BCE. Recent archaeological research in the Ganges Valley, India showed early iron working by 1800 BC. However, this metal was expensive, perhaps because of the technical processes required to make steel, the most useful iron product. It is attested in both documents and in archaeological contexts as a substance used in high value items such as jewelry.

Unlike tin-bronze, which probably required a specific sequence of local inventions near the ore sources followed by diffusion, iron use could (and probably did) arise and evolve in multiple places in unrelated ways, because it didn’t depend on special ingredients. The idea that it might have been expensive enough, in the form of steel, to be jewelry, is reminiscent of the modern history of another metal: aluminum. Like iron, it is one of the most commonplace metals, and like iron, until a cheap manufacturing process was discovered, it was a noble metal. Rich people ate off aluminum ware and wore aluminum jewelry.

So you can tell a broader, speculative history: since you didn’t need complicated shipping and smelting to make a basic use of iron, its use could develop on the peripheries of civilization, among barbarian-nomads who didn’t demand the high quality that the tin-bronze markets did. Iron didn’t need the complicated industry that bronze did. What’s more, chances are, the bronze guilds were likely quite snooty about the crappy, rusty material outside of highly-refined and expensive jewelry uses.

But the margins, which didn’t have the tin trade or industry, had a good reason to pay attention to iron.  I speculate that for the barbarian-nomad cultures that were far from the Bronze Age urban centers, the upgrade that iron provided over stone, even with the problems of rust and brittleness that plagued primitive iron, was enough for them to take down the old Bronze-powered civilizations, and then leisurely evolve iron to its modern form. I suspect a bronze-leapfrogging transition from stone to iron happened in many places, as with cellphones today in Africa.

(aside, I assume there is an equally sophisticated story about how bronze displaced stone; neolithic stone age cultures like the ones the Europeans encountered in America, were far from grunting cave-dwellers. They had evolved stone use to a high art).

By the time iron got both good enough and cheap enough to take on bronze as a serious contender for uses like weaponry, the incumbent Bronze Age civilizations couldn’t catch up. The pre-industrial barbarian-nomads had the upper hand.

Iron didn’t completely displace bronze in weaponry until quite late. As late as Alexander’s conquests, he still used bronze; iron technology was not yet good enough at the highest levels of quality, but the point is, it was good enough initially for the marginal markets, and for masses of barbarian soldiers.

Sound familiar?

This is classic disruption in the sense of Clayton Christensen. An initially low-quality marginal market product (iron) getting better and eventually taking down the mainstream market (bronze), at a point where the incumbents could do nothing, despite the extreme sophistication of their civlization, with its evolved tin trading routes and deliberate metallurgical practices.

Rewinding History

Understanding the history of bronze and iron better has forced me to rewind my sense of when “history” proper starts by at least 11,000 years. The story has given me a new appreciation for how sophisticated human beings have been, and for how long. I used to think that truly psychologically modern humans didn’t emerge till about 1200 AD. The story of bronze made me rewind my assessments to 4000 BC. Now, though I don’t know the details (nobody does), I think psychologically modern human culture must have started no later than 10,000 BC, the approximate period of what is called the Neolithic revolution.

Now I think the most interesting period in history is probably 10,000 BC to 4,000 BC. Even 20,000 BC to 10,000 BC is fascinating (that’s when the caves in Lascaux were painted), but let’s march backwards one millennium at a time.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Hrm I seem to be taking the opposite lesson – that humans largely continue to be as unsophisticated now as we ever were, and that we’re merely propped up by a handful of good ideas (trade, democracy, science) and a couple of important discoveries (cheap combustion, writing, mathematics, computation).

  2. This was a very interesting read; I’d never stopped to consider what caused the passing of an Age, or how it actually happened.

    I would love to see something about the Stone-to-Bronze transition if you ever write it.

  3. Thanks for the interesting post! I have to say I admire the variety of phenomena that you are capable of writing of. It’s nice to have somebody write with a style and attention to detail enough to satisfy the intelligent, yet lacking the name and concept dropping that at times possesses scholars of the subject.

    As for the subject matter itself, I agree with Brian. I find it fascinating how similar some of our institutions are compared to older ones – and also how similar we are to our ancestors. Maybe it’s just the rise of evolutionary psychology that’s made the similarity clearer.

  4. Mark Lucas says

    A facinating article, with a refreshingly scientific flavor. While industrialisation has lead to phenomenal changes, our essential intellectual qualities have remained unchanged for millenia. Certainly, the more we learn about early civilizations, the greater respect we are compelled to pay them.

  5. Venkat,
    I suggest adding a small poll (radio button) after your post ends. The Poll reads:
    “Do you agree with Brian C Potter’s views?”
    x Yes
    o No
    o Somewhat”
    The answers might be surprising, revealing and save a lot of comment space for your good self and maybe to others too. Humanity’s thinking – exposed!

    The post contained all your writing hallmarks that I’ve now come to recognise fully well:
    1. The usual technological trend fixation (even before I finished the first line I knew you were going to address “leapfrogging” Ha! :-P),
    2. Too very forward looking (that’s just you/your personality),
    3. As always, slightly nihilistic (“then who cares about rust and extreme hardness if the objective is to split open the skull of another guy in the next 10 seconds.” – Interesting first thought, Huh Venkat?) .

    Perhaps because of this, or in spite of this, it somehow brought out the same idea in me that Brian commented about! And I didn’t read the comments until I read the post! Uncanny.

    Now keeping with the post, if we follow the historical trends, then we will see (I don’t want to steal your thunder), this sort of thing is cyclical and therefore, we will shortly be falling off, back into the “dark ages” once again! Keep your basket weaving skills handy brother, just in case (and as you can see, my “axe grinding” skills are just fine ;-) ).

    P.S: Interesting that you’re able to keep the posts going despite the looming “Tempo” deadline


  6. Thanks for the comments guys.

    Brian: That’s a pretty bleak reading, but also admissible given the facts of history. I like to think there’s at least a couple of idea-inventions (after ‘language’) that have changed human thinking in broad ways. Formal mathematics is one. Math changes your brain I think, and the basic algebra that every kid learns by 10th grade today would probably have been mind-blowing to most people before about 1000 AD.

    But on the larger scale, that’s perhaps a minor effect, and possibly you are right.

    Surio: yup, I do tend to look for certain favorite themes and memes in all subject matter.

    • Venkat wrote:
      > Math changes your brain I think, and the basic algebra that every
      > kid learns by 10th grade today would probably have been mind-blowing
      > to most people before about 1000 AD

      Oho, Venkat, don’t be so sure, particularly if you are going to take “world views” on this subject. Modern algebra (or math, shall we say), as we know it now is “one possible” construct of attempting understanding the universe. Remember, it was a relatively modern guy who came up with this ‘mathematical interpretation’ of the vedas in 20th century. And then, post WWII, there was the ‘Trachtenberg system’ also. I’m willing to posit (and rather strongly too) that the “ancients” also looked at mathematics/science/astronomy very differently, and the sands of time have obscured it for us now. Well, not entirely, South American indigenous people and native Australians are still throwing up surprising revelations through their understanding of astronomy, topology, etc., that is baffling “modern science” :-)

      For sure,

    • Hrm I didn’t intend any bleakness – I actually think it means there’s probably a huge amount of room for improvement in possible systems, though our particular biological and societal constraints may make it a case of “you can’t get there from here”.

      I’m not sure about mathematics. It’d certainly be incomprehensibly enlightening to a select few, and the right sort of knowledge would effectively give you super powers in the ancient world. I remember reading that a high-school level of probability would let you conquer ancient Rome by amassing a fortune through winning at dice.

      But I’m not sure if it’s really advanced us, rather than given us a better set of tools to work with. Up until recently we were still teaching geometry using “Elements”, after all, and that’s over 2000 years old. It’s not clear to me that the mathematical geniuses of today are qualitatively different than those of ancient Greece, and I think most of us are still pretty far from a natural affinity for math.

      I suspect it’s a lot like longevity – society has done a great deal to raise the average life expectancy, but the maximum possible age has been stubbornly resistant to change. Likewise, while we’re certainly more intelligent on average than a Roman or an Assyrian, we’re probably not any smarter than the smartest of them.

  7. You might like this book:
    I’m guessing it’s a bit too superficial for your tastes, but it does have fascinating stuff, like electroplating done before Christ.

  8. I’d be interested to know where you got the figure of 10,000 BC for the epoch at which humans by which spread throughout the world.
    It is known that humans were in Australia by around 40,000 BC at the latest.
    So which parts of the world were only first populated at a later time than that?

    • Sorry for the ambiguity. “By 10,000 BC” is “by or before 10,000 BC.” You’re right, it probably happened well before that.

      The reason I use that date is not because it is important in the spread of humans, but because that’s the latest date that will work for my argument. 10,000 BC is approximately when the Neolithic revolution happened (which probably had something to do with the end of the last glacial age as well). Conservatively, I assume that some final pattern of dispersal was probably related to the end of the glacial age, but if it happened before, that’s fine too.

      For my argument to work, all I need is that the dispersal had happened before the Neolithic revolution.

      Someday I’ll dig into 10,000 BC stuff.

  9. Very interesting. I didn’t know that tin was so rare and the consequences for bronze. Metallurgy has always been a black art to me, and I could never understand how the ancients mastered it, especially the recipes with complex multi-step processes. Kept heating various combinations of rocks until something happened?

    Like Jared Diamond says, most important inventions (writing for one) probably happened only once, and then spread like wildfire, either by trade or by the discoverers getting such a large advantage that they simply overran the others. Analogous to evolution: a chance mutation happens once by luck and then spreads like wildfire. Good luck and bad luck happen with equal freqency, but bad luck dies, and good luck reproduces. (Cultural/biological) evolution = filter + extreme amplifier of good luck. The result of compounded application of several iterations of extreme good luck is as complex and mystifying in culture as it is in biology.

    The existence of trade (I resist the term international: history happened all over the place with flagrant disrespect for modern boundaries, much to the consternation of present-day nationalist historians in search of a glorious past) over vast regions that far ago is pretty awesome. Though almost incredible, it’s been done, time and time again, as exemplified by the colonization – and even more awesome, regular trade between – every inhabitable island of the the Pacific. All done with stone age technology barely a millenium ago.

    When we go back to 40k years, the even more interesting spectre of cross-species cultural trade raises its head. Was there technology transfer between the Neanderthals and homo sapiens?

    • I can’t make up a plausible “accident story” for tin bronze that I like. One thought is that since Syria is a minor source of tin, maybe somebody accidentally threw some tin ore into an arsenical bronze kiln and noticed it came out harder. Then somehow news of the accident spread to better sources of tin like the Czech republic?

      Something about that doesn’t strike me as right though. These cultural evolution mysteries are even trickier than evolutionary psych in biology.

      One idea may matter in many explanations though. In our super-hurried times, we forget just how much time and leisure the ancients had, and how much more attention they paid to things we ignore. I mean, can you imagine noticing that the 5 visible planets moved around against fixed stars? Even Venus, the most obvious one, with its reliable morning star/evening star pattern, had to be pointed out to me. I’d NEVER have noticed Mercury, Jupiter, Mars and Saturn moving around if I hadn’t been looking as part of an astronomy club, with charts and a guide to help.

      But that’s not me being dumber I think. 5000 years ago, the sky would have been far darker, and people would be naturally paying attention to the stars just to navigate, and would notice anomalies.

      Possibly the same goes for animals, vegetables and minerals. More thoughtful extended attention may achieve miracles you and I cannot conceive.

      For example, another invention I can’t really fathom is the discovery of crop rotation. How the hell did someone notice that planting cereals and legumes in alternation with a fallow year kept land fertile indefinitely? Which slash-and-burn nomad first noticed that pattern? Was it accidental initially or did someone deliberately try various patterns of sowing (crop rotation requires at LEAST 3 seasons of memory, foresight and persistence…)?

      • Concojones says

        Venkat, may I offer a suggestion how crop rotation was discovered? You’re a farmer and you grow wheat and peas. The following year, you grow wheat on the same spot as where it was last year, and peas where there had been peas. Result: both the wheat and pea crop are kinda meager, and half your kids are soon starving from hunger. But on the wheat lot there were also some stray pea plants (for whatever reason – say, birds had pooped out pea seeds there) and those grew great! Or one of your neighbours grew wheat on former pea land, and his crop turned out great too.

        Then you can wonder why it took us till the Middle Ages to figure out crop rotation. That must have been because before that, there was so much land that you could just leave the bad (exhausted) land and grow your crops a bit further.

        • Concojones says

          Let me put it differently: first it was discovered that you couldn’t plant wheat in the same spot two years in a row, so you had the alternation of a rest year and a crop year. Of course at some point someone will try to grow a crop on the rest land, for whatever reason, and if it was wheat it gave the expected meager harvest, but if it was peas it gave an abundant harvest. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what’s happening here.

      • Dan Everett’s book “Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes” is a great ride through a white Christian missionary’s years living amongst one of the most primitive tribes left on Earth. People who don’t even take care of what little high-tech tools they are given (e.g. knives), because they realize on some level that relying on outside artifacts only weakens their own skills at making tools from natural materials. Everett is best known for (maybe) blowing up Chomsky’s universal grammar, because he claims the Piraha tribe has no recursion in its language, but the book isn’t about language. Relative to your comment on noticing planets, he describes of a couple of guys taking him out to spear a python in a muddy river, where they are amazed he can’t see the characteristic swirls that let them spear it in one shot without ever seeing the animal itself. He talks about a few other things they notice that he doesn’t, like red crocodile eyes in the dark next to a path, or the difference between the wind and a monkey shaking a tree branch. When you have nothing else to pay attention to, and decades of experience, plus learning from elders, maybe it’s easy to see these things.

  10. Concojones says

    My thoughts:
    – ‘modern civilization’ going back to 4000BC should be no surprise if you look at the pyramids in Egypt. Those were built well before 1200 AD, some even claim almost 10,000 BC (Sphynx head disproportionately small due to major downpours in the Arch of Noah era)
    – so iron didn’t displace copper because it allowed for superior weaponry, it did because it was cheaper?
    – iron-using peoples didn’t conquer copper-using peoples because iron = superior weapons, but because the copper users lost their monopoly in ‘modern’ weaponry?

    • My reading is that iron replaced copper-tin alloys because it was more common and easier to work with. Copper-tin alloys require you to have access to both copper AND tin (the latter of which was more rare) as well as to craftsmen with knowledge of properly creating strong alloys and working with the metal.

      On the other hand, with iron being common, it was closer to hand for local craftsmen all over the place to work with, so they could learn its properties.

      That led to iron weapons being more plentiful among the more numerous “barbarian horde,” and then it was a question of numbers.

      So think that it wasn’t necessarily cheapness, but plentifulness, that led to iron gaining supremacy.

      • Concojones says

        We’re on the same page here (to me, “plentiful” = “cheap”). But thanks for clearing up the confusion I may have created. :-)

        • Concojones says

          or “more accessible” if you want.

        • I think “plentiful=cheap” is a good approximation for that far back, when pricing in currency was probably fairly restricted and local, and barter ruled in most places.

          I would guess that tin traveled through barter trade from the peripheries to the main civilizations, which then traded further among themselves with gold and silver coins. But that’s just a theory.

          • Vercingetorix says

            At the risk of being pedantic — and focusing on the trees rather than the forest — coins didn’t exist at the time of the Bronze Age collapse. They didn’t really appear in significant numbers until several hundred years later (fifth or sixth centuries B.C., something like that). So however the tin was traded internally, it wasn’t with coins.

  11. Concojones says

    Correction: it was the Sphynx, not the Pyramids that may have been built 1o,000BC. The Pyramids are more recent (still well before 1200 AD though).

  12. One thing to remember is the proverbial infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of keyboards — there were lots and lots of farmers out there, so someone was bound to stumble across SOMETHING, even if it’s not the typical modern crop rotation, but some similar idea. It would be stranger, I think, if none of that had even happened.

    As far as bronze, what about sloppy smelting? Various impurities, tin ore mixed in with copper… things like that?

  13. Here’s my reading into this crop rotation bit: It basically dovetails Venkat’s observations on astronomy and Concojones’ point on poor yields. Without belabouring much, this is called “Biodynamic Agriculture” and was presented by Rudolf Steiner as a lecture series, by incorporating ancient Indian/Central European tenets. Those links are for those that wish to take it up for laters. So, it was definitely NOT a case of serendipity, but the very same “Newtonian apple observation” ingenuity that led those “primitive hordes” to devise these rules, that Steiner eventually compiled together for the benefit of farmers! Let’s give our forebears more credit:

    The development of biodynamic agriculture began in 1924 with a series of eight lectures on agriculture given by Rudolf Steiner at Schloss Koberwitz (now in Poland east of Wrocław). The course was held in response to a request by farmers who noticed degraded soil conditions and a deterioration in the health and quality of crops and livestock resulting from the use of chemical fertilizers. An agricultural research group was subsequently formed to test the effects of biodynamic methods on the life and health of soil, plants and animals.

    Methods unique to the biodynamic approach include the use of fermented herbal and mineral preparations as compost additives and field sprays and the use of an astronomical sowing and planting calendar.

    But sadly, as with everything else that doesn’t fit the vested interests of large multinational corporations’ balance sheets, the usual witch-hunt involving “resembles alchemy or magic akin to geomancy”, “occult and dogmatic”, “not provable because scientifically clear hypotheses cannot be made”, “not enough datasets”…. are employed to discredit this. My point in response to that is to paraphrase Einstein: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”, but then again, who’s interested in the opinions of “Surio” in the blog comments section? :-?

    So, as the saying goes, “stop and smell the roses” (or look at the heavens) and you’ll find that the “answer is blowing in the wind” ;-) !


  14. This reminds me of the spread of gunpowder; the early gunpowder usage in China was decorative (i.e. fireworks) and by the time it started to be used in Europe around the 14th century it was “clumsy and random” as a hand weapon compared to the longbow and even the crossbow. In fact to aim properly you had to aim downwards, as the recoil would raise the weapon when you fired. As a siege weapon it was devastating – you can tell the design of castles pre- and post-gunpowder era, as the cannon ball relegated castles to decorative museum pieces – compare Versailles to the Tower of London, for example.

    However, it took decades to produce a good longbowman. They were trained in guilds, skills were passed on from father to son, and from childhood, because that’s how long it took to become good. Longbowmen were at a premium. The musket was nowhere near as accurate, but it was more powerful, especially in the hands of a mass army. A musketman could be trained in a few weeks and could form part of a large army – which is what we see in the Thirty Years War, huge conscript or mercenary soldiers raised from the peasantry.

    Interestingly enough the old bow and arrow was still good enough for guerilla warfare – even better in fact, because you could mass-produce the weapon and ammo almost entirely from readily available local materials and it was silent – which explains its usage by Native Americans fighting the US Army right up to the late 19th century, and even its usage today among special forces and other guerilla-type units.

  15. behavioral modernity likely occurred at least as far back as the most recent common ancestor of all current living behaviorally modern humans, which according to some estimates occurred between 50 and 15 kya. the interesting question then becomes why behaviorally modern humans existed for so long, for hundreds of generations, in their nascent state without sudden great advancement.

  16. The funny thing about history is that whatever stuff you learn seems to be what has been known by everyone for ages:

    I thought it was the standard popularised impression that bronze was an elite weapon type easily repaired (being easily worked means it can be hammer sharpened, without requiring new material) but harder to make, helping to stabalise the small elites running the various economies (as nobles, slave owners, whatever).

    Wheras iron was a material that would be made in big batches, meaning that you could send out longer term raiding parties who would grind-sharpen them on the road, and then have them return periodically and have their weapons reforged. Importantly, it was possible to arm a far larger group of people, allowing a serious step up in the size of well equipped armies, and you could do it without having to be on good trading terms with half as many people.

    Not sure where I got all that from mind!

    • Josh:

      You are clearly well ahead of some of us. I came to these conclusions only recently, via deductions from the scarcity of tin. It would nice to actually find broader direct evidence for the more detailed picture you are painting. Since you seem to have gotten that randomly from somewhere, I suspect it must be common knowledge in the history of ancient warfare (which I know very little about).

      If you remember/find the sources of your description, I’d really like to read the material myself.

      On a related note, in modern times, the AK-47 is the most successful WMD for very similar reasons. It is a very robust weapon that a lot of people can easily use/maintain etc. Though there are nominally better competing assault rifles, they require more elite military infrastructure. The AK-47 by contrast, appears to be illegally manufactured all over the place. Equivalent American weapons are more complex.

  17. The most interesting period in history to me is 15,000 – 10,000 BCE, for much the same reason: for whatever mystery, anatomically modern humans, who had been around for something like 250,000 years living successfully as nomadic hunter-foragers, changed their ways dramatically. They stopped following the animal herds that were their sustenance and started sticking seeds in the ground — and grass seeds no less, a food source that was at most peripheral to their main diet. And there is a pretty significant amount of evidence to suggest that this switch led to higher mortality and a severely crippled quality of life. Why would they do this?

    Clearly the root of this is cognitive-psychological. There was no physical change in humans’ anatomy that made it some kind of imperative. They chose to do this on purpose. And not only did they choose this in the Levant, they chose it in China, South America, in Europe — albeit at different times for different places — everywhere that civilizations first sprang up out of the wilderness, those people had to make this same choice.

    I’ve done a little bit of reading on the subject of cognitive archaeology and one of the suggestions is that when the glaciers of the last ice age began retreating in earnest, approximately 15,000-ish BCE, the climate changed to such a degree that survival required a cognitive shift that was heretofore completely alien: hunter-foragers suddenly began to plan ahead, and thus was born cyclical-linear time and abstract thought.

    At the same time that people started living in villages and growing their own food, they also experienced an explosion in abstract symbology that was simply not present before. Whereas paleolithic peoples painted images of their everyday lives on cave walls, now suddenly in the archaeological record there appears a vast array of gods, goddesses, spirits, demigods, demons and the like. This alien notion — “the future” — is a place that exists, yet doesn’t exist in any tangible way like the rain or the animals. This place that exists, yet doesn’t exist, became the realm for all things invisible but supposedly “real” to those living in the new cities. And, in my opinion, this is the cognitive foundation for civilization.

    What I find utterly and obsessively fascinating is that Western mythology explicitly addresses all this from an eyewitness point of view. In Genesis, Adam and Eve were warned not to eat from “the tree of the fruit of hte knowledge of good and evil.” There was a cognitive line they were forbidden to cross, yet they did, and their punishment was what? They were thrown out of the paleolithic hunter-forager Garden, forced into grain farming, and ultimately into civilization. Genesis treats the rise of cities as a great scourge. According to our own mythology — for those of us who identify with Western cultures, anyway — civilization is not progress, not evolution, but nothing less than “The Fall Of Man.”

    So that was a rather huge and rambling discourse. This is a subject I’ve been delving into for some years now, and I find it endlessly fascinating. Hope you all will forgive the indulgence here at a blog not my own!

    • Paula:

      Thanks for sharing the thoughts. They are quite fascinating. You should definitely develop the theme further as a blog post.

      I recall Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael had a similar reading of the Garden of Eden story. I agree there is a strong case that the story could potentially have arisen out of an oral tradition that preserved it between 10,000 BC to 4000 BC or so. Do you have thoughts/data on how strongly the retreat of the glaciers affected the Middle Eastern climates where the Garden of Eden myth appears to have appeared?

      You are right that the Abrahamic religions are unique in adopting a historicist origin-and-decline narrative. Eastern equivalents tend to be cyclically creative-destructive. I wonder why that happened.

      Philip Pullman, author of the “Dark Materials” fantasy trilogy, takes your notion of a cognitive-psychological break point around10,000 BC almost literally (in his storyline, it represented the evolution of human “consciousness” due to some sort of mystical interaction with “dust” which he identifies with dark matter/energy). I think you’ll enjoy that series if you haven’t read it.

  18. I do have some thoughts about the glacier thing — basically, I don’t buy it, for a couple of reasons. First, because people who are hungry are going to eat their seeds, not plant them. Second, the “fertile crescent” was so named for a reason. Villages, cities, and kingdoms thrived there for thousands of years before desertification was complete, and in fact I’ve heard of some research that suggests the activities of civilization hastened that process.

    The mythology is clear that the cognitive shift came first, and only afterward did humans leave nomadism behind. They did this because they felt they’d been forced into it and couldn’t go back. I have my thoughts about this as well, but it’s purely speculation… aside from oral tradition, I don’t know that this kind of information can be recorded.

    I’ve never read Ishmael but I’m familiar with Quinn… he scratched the surface of this subject but then he didn’t pursue it, I assume because his knowledge of the Bible is limited. I was raised in a strict Evangelical church, a low-grade cult really, and have a thorough knowledge of the Bible as a result. The pieces fit from beginning to end, I just don’t think he was able to see that.

    I’m vaguely familiar with “Dark Materials.” I’m actually not much a fan of fiction reading… it just doesn’t grab me. A character defect on my part perhaps.

    Responding to your email momentarily…

    • Most of this I am not aware of, for, like yourself I’ve spent my time reading mythologies and stories around our culture, so I will take a small exception to this line:
      > basically, I don’t buy it, for a couple of reasons. First, because
      > people who are hungry are going to eat their seeds, not plant them.

      There’s a major character from The MahaBharatha. Here’s part of his story:

      In prison, Gandhari’s were served just one fistful of rice every day. Realizing that this was an elaborate plan to starve them to death, Gandhari’s father declared that none but his youngest son would eat the sparse food being served, so that at least one amongst them would survive to avenge the death of the rest.

      Guess what this youngest son was called? Yup, Indians will tell you that he is Shakuni!

      While the motivation for this act of starving oneself to death was the dark emotion of “revenge”, it just goes to show that it is very possible that human beings can, and will delay their own gratification (starve) for a greater and common purpose (or good, as the case may be).

      I am noticing this kind of thinking a lot, these days. We have become so conditioned by the milieu and structure of the Industrialised society, that we are beginning to define humankind not by their innate qualities that were once possessed, but by traits and conditions that were actually a product of the industrial society in the first place.

  19. Having started out my working career as a blacksmith, I’d like to add a few things.

    Iron is much more forgiving to work with than bronze. Wrought iron, the original iron, is both tough and rust resistant. Bronze is soft until hammer hardened, at which point it becomes brittle. In a contest of iron armor and swords against bronze armor and swords, the bronze is going to be sliced, dented, and shattered.

    The common practice in the early use of steel was to forge a tool out of comparatively cheap and plentiful iron and then apply a thin strip of steel to the cutting edge. A soldier with a bronze helmet, sword, and shield would be at a severe disadvantage to a soldier with steel edged iron weapon and iron armor.

    What might be the crucial difference in development is that the process of making bronze is much more intuitive than making iron. It’s a melt-and-mix process. Even if the craftsman makes an error in proportion he gets something moderately useful. Iron, by contrast, requires a deep and controlled charcoal fire in a cylindrical masonry structure called a Catalan forge. The iron maker has to have the air flow and timing just so, and has to handle the developing bloom of semi-molten iron carefully. A number of modern hobbyists have tried it with very mixed results. Even a small amount of contamination with a naturally occurring alloy like molybdenum can result in failure. Then the spongy bloom of iron and slag has to be hammered to remove excess (but not all) impurities and then folded and welded to refine it. (A friend and I will be trying this in the next few months)

    And there’s this: Iron ore doesn’t look or feel like iron when you dig it up. Copper often occurred in near pure deposits that were recognizable as a useful metal.

    On the agricultural front, I’d say that people traded leisure for security. Hunter gatherers worked less than agriculturalists, but starved when the wild herds thinned or out-migrated them, or a drought reduced the stock of wild plants. The farmers and herders stored energy in the form of grain stocks and captive animals, evening out the deadly fluctuations of nature. Just as in today’s high tech world, energy storage is the big issue.

    • Killer post! Thank you very much for contributing.

    • This is fascinating. I had no idea there were hobbyists trying to recreate ancient iron-making methods.

      If you and your friend do the experiment, do post a link to any pictures here.

      • Venkat,

        Will do, but we are still thigh deep in snow up here, so it will be a few months. We are also going to try to work some meteoritic iron (from Argentina). The general methodology for making wrought iron is well known, but in the same way that hitting a great serve in tennis is well known. There is some feel and practice involved. Luckily for us we live withing a couple hours drive of a played out iron mine that produced some of the highest quality ore in the world (60% – magnetite). We can pick up the accidental droppings off the ground near the old railroad tracks. Wish us luck.

        Thinking about your post, I feel the need to differentiate between brittle cast iron and ductile wrought iron. Wrought iron is the earlier form, as I described in my comment above. It is fibrous – a base of soft, low-carbon steel (almost pure iron) shot through with fibers of silicate left over from the slag inclusions in the bloom. It can be heated and hammered into shape, hammer welded, and riveted. Cast iron was a later development, achieved when someone figured out that they could preheat the incoming combustion air off the stack gases. It is very high carbon (1.5-2%) and quite brittle, but can be cast in sand molds into frying pans and such.

        Warriors during the Late Bronze/Early Iron Age would be bashing each other with wrought iron implements. I don’t think that rust and brittleness were the problems once wrought iron was fully developed. Bronze was the inferior product in terms of toughness, hardness, and edge-holding characteristics. Despite the scarcity of tin, bronze/copper was the easier to recognize as a useful material, to experiment with, and to manufacture.

        I can imagine a Bronze Age individual finding a lump of magnetite and using it as an effective hammer. The problem would lie in developing a method of modifying the form. The bellows-blown charcoal fires of that era couldn’t get hot enough to actually liquefy iron and thus alloy it in the manner of copper/bronze. Thus the long and counter-intuitive development process of wrought iron.

        Relative resource purity and resulting differences in energy input might have been a deciding factor. Copper and tin deposits existed in relatively high concentrations and could be melted, purified, and alloyed with a certain amount of charcoal. Iron deposits were (and are) rarely of the magnetite quality. This meant more material handling, more charcoal, and more grunt hammering to get the same amount of material. Ironworking centers tended to cluster around sources of water power, a power source that didn’t develop till the first millenium BCE. The three factors that had to be geographically co-located for large scale iron making were iron ore, abundant forests, and waterfalls.

  20. Francis Barton says

    Very interesting post and comments. The BBC’s latest “In Our Time” discussion (24 March) is on this very topic: – can post mp3 link for the podcast later if you like.

    Please do not be put off by the Atlantis references, because Gavin Menzies makes a fair case for a world trade in copper (only heard interviews, so don’t know what he says about tin).