2021-08-02 15:59:16 UTC
Works at Aalto University Thu
Why did Aztecs in the 1500's still not have metal when they had metal
weapons in BC Bible times?
Because they did not have metallurgy.
The only metals the Aztecs had were gold, silver and copper. All those
are Ib group transition elements which are chemically very inert and can
appear in the nature as bare metals, and smelting copper ore is easy.
Metals are not something you just have. You have to first discover
metallurgy (the art of extracting metals from ores) and discover the
properties of the metals. Mind you the Ancients knew only seven metals
(Au, Ag, Cu, Fe, Pb, Hg, Sn) and one (Zn) as an alloy (but did not know
which metal it was).
Bronze smelting had been invented in Mesoamerica by 1300 (the Aztec
state was founded in 1325) and bronze was used as decorative purposes -
its qualities had not been discovered yet. Notably, certain artifacts
from West Mexico contain tin or arsenic at concentrations as high as 23
weight percent, while concentrations of alloying elements at roughly 2
to 5 weight percent Sn are typically adequate for augmented strength and
So the Aztecs (and other Mexica cultures) simply did not realize the
usefulness of decent bronze as weapons and armour material - the
invention was a novelty, and they already had obsidian, which is
incredibly sharp. They had some bronze axes, but they appear to have
been novelties. By the time of the Spanish conquest, a bronze-smelting
technology seemed to have been be nascent.
Ferrometallurgy - the art of producing iron and steel - was brought in
Mesoamerica by the Spanish.
Didn't Mexica also know how to melt lead (and tin, since how come the
bronze axes then)?
Tin on it's own isn't particularly useful without certain technologies,
so it's primary value for most of history was for use in bronze. Lead is
only useful on it's own for casting, all applications of which the
Mexica and other mesoamerican cultures had other, generally superior,
alternatives to; why bother mining and casting lead for sling bullets
when you have perfectly good stone and clay? Why make arrowheads out of
it when the only armor anybody uses is padded cotton soaked in saltwater
or cured hide, and obsidian is more than enough to deal with that?
Profile photo for Gareth Adamson
Presumably, once metals start to be available there is an arms race as
they are used for both weapons and armour. But this was happening slowly
in the Americas because of the relatively low level of competition, i.e.
there weren’t many different powers wanting to fight each other. It
looks as though they were just about entering their bronze age, which
puts them about 4,500 years behind the main Eurasian powers.
Profile photo for Jonathan Graifer
Eh, not exactly. They just didn't see any *need* to change how they did
things. As already noted, bronze axes were already a thing, and while
characterizing then as “novelties" isn't exactly correct, they just
didn't see any purpose in adapting bronze for warfare. After all, the
real benefit of bronze over stone is that you can make longer, more
durable blades…. But mesoamericans had already found a workaround for
that over a millenium before: short obsidian blades set in pitch-filled
grooves around the edge of wooden paddles. The macuahuital was all they
It's like asking why they never developed the wheel; they DID have it.
They used it for making pottery and on children's toys. It was never
needed for transportation because wheeled carts are only truly efficient
when paired with draft animals substantially stronger than a human.
The only domesticated draft animals native to the Americas were isolated
in the Andes, Llamas and Alpacas, both of which are as strong or barely
stronger than a human, and in places where narrow, winding roads are
prevalent. So in Peru you got runners or pack trains, while everyone
else made do with A-frame sledges, boats, or what they could carry.
I think what this misses is the element of feedback when considering the
environment in which developments take place, especially in military
matters. The mountains aren’t changing, so you’re never going to have
much use for wheels. (At least not until you have motors to power them.)
But when it comes to arms, the environment is not static in the same
way, because the main consideration is: what does your opponent have? If
the opponent adopts a technological improvement, you must match or
better it, or face conquest.
This might happen quite slowly at first, but the more intense the
military competition, the greater the pressure towards technological
But nobody adopted bronze for armor or weapons in the Americas. They
felt it wasn't needed, obsidian was better; took a better edge, was
readily available, and less work to maintain, so they didn't bother.
Profile photo for Gareth Adamson
Yes, they were only at the very beginning of their bronze age. They
hadn’t yet found the optimum formula for bronze either.
Ironically, the PNW cultures did have a flourishing tradition of copper
working before contact, and skipped over bronze altogether using
drift-iron: already refined iron salvaged from wrecks that washed up
after crossing the Pacific. When the colonial powers came into contact
with groups like the Tlingit and Haida, they already had their own
traditions, skillset, and vocabulary surrounding the art of re-forging
this iron, but no means of producing their own.