The scene: Earth, but with a single major modification, the addition of a HUGE quantity of a single element to the Earth's crust (bringing it up to the same abundance as Iron in the crust).

The element: The added element must have a density equal to, or greater than, Palladium. It must be stable under standard conditions. It must occur naturally in the real Earth's crust already, though it need not be in a native state, ores are ok. It must not be hazardous to humans (eg. no Mercury or Plutonium). It must be something that would have a significant influence on pre-1500 (the year 1500 or earlier) metalworking technological advancement, though it need not be a metal itself (eg. Carbon is not a metal but has a huge significance in metals tech).

The actual question: Which element (meeting the above criteria), if it had been so much more abundant and available in the crust than it actually is, would have caused the most dramatically different development in metalworking than what actually happened in history?

EDIT Apparently the purpose of the question is regarded by potential answerers as more important than I originally anticipated. So to explain it briefly: I'm building a world that is smaller but more dense than Earth, to yield earth-like gravity. I'm doing this by adding more dense material(s) to it. This question was intended to help me understand some of the likely implications of this element being available in greater quantities than on earth to technological advancement of civilizations that are placed on this world for the story, which takes place in a roughly medieval tech level. Emphasis added to "in the crust" to indicate that changes to the overall density to Earth, and gravity, etc., are outside the scope of the question. Other than the element is more available for metalworking/metallurgy/etc., other effects on the Earth can be disregarded.

  • $\begingroup$ "The most dramatically different development" is probably too opinion-based. There aren't that many elements meeting your criteria, so you might try narrowing it down to one or two specific metals and editing your question to focus on them. (As far as I can tell, taking your density requirement and cutting out radioactive and synthetic elements leaves gold, tungsten, various platinum-group metals, and a few scattered transition metals.) $\endgroup$ – Cadence Feb 1 '19 at 19:51
  • $\begingroup$ Just as a warning, increasing the abundance of any material denser than palladium to the quantities of Iron is going to significantly increase the mass of the planet. Most of the iron on earth is at the core, but a denser material is going to have an even lower surface to core ratio. So I'd avoid the "same availability as Iron" criteria before you work yourself into a "there are no trees because too much gravity" scenario. $\endgroup$ – Stephan Feb 1 '19 at 19:53
  • $\begingroup$ What exactly are you trying to accomplish? Why palladium - is this purely arbitrary or are you actually expecting some particular traits? Is there an actual purpose or is this purely arbitrary conditions? Why haven't you just googled the list of elements by density and looked past palladium? $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Feb 1 '19 at 19:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Stephan I've got solutions planned for all of that, and it's all really beside the point of the question. If you really want to know, I'm trying to make a non-earth planet more dense, but smaller, yielding earthlike gravity. I'm adding dense material to increase the density, and this question is meant to help me address how those added materials will affect the civilizations that I later place on the planet for the story. But, for the intents and purposes of this question, it can be "effectively" Earth, just with mines of something that we don't have mines for now. $\endgroup$ – Dalila Feb 1 '19 at 20:17
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    $\begingroup$ The crust represents less than 1% of the Earth's total mass. Iron represents 5.6% of the crust by mass, so (being generous) crustal iron is 0.056% of the planet's overall mass. If you doubled the amount of iron, the gravity at Earth's surface would increase by roughly 0.006 g. If you tripled? 0.011 g. In other words, you'd have to add a ridiculously obscene amount of the element to the crust to significantly impact the planet's gravity. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Feb 1 '19 at 20:48

The more I think about this, I think any significant increase in planetary density would probably negatively impact the use of metals in general.

We've known about metals for a very very long time, but only really put them to use beyond decoration and cutting implements very recently in human history. Iron wasn't valued for weapons or armor until it's alloy with carbon was discovered, as it was too heavy otherwise. Steel wasn't even used for construction until around the construction of the Eiffel Tower in 1889. Gold was thought useless for anything but ornamentation and currency until its electrical properties were recognized, again, very recently.

I think if the planet were significantly more dense, the usefulness of metals would take an even longer time to be recognized, as the gravity would reduce the useful loads of these materials. Stonework and concrete would likely remain the construction material of choice.

It's also important to note that increasing the mass of the planet is going to affect the availability of all elements in the crust. Elements tend to sort themselves into layers over time due to their own specific gravity.


Since the comments clarify that the planet would be smaller, but denser to net out at the same surface gravity, that changes things.

Silver, Tin, Platinum, Gold and Lead are the only metals I know of in that criteria that aren't inherently hazardous and have any major usefulness to a Medieval society.

Platinum is a hard metal to use, so likely wouldn't change anything significantly. Even platinum coins are difficult to strike.

Silver being so plentiful might make everyone blue blooded or blue skinned(literally).

Gold would likely increase its use as decoration, and it'd probably still be the primary commodity of trade. Gold shingles on roofs might be part of their construction methods.

Lead would leak so much radiation at those quantities that people would probably be dead.

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    $\begingroup$ "Iron wasn't valued for weapons or armor until it's alloy with carbon was discovered:" what alloy with carbon -- steel or cast iron? And it's anyway definitely not true; the iron swords and tools of the Iron Age (including, for example, Roman swords) were made of soft iron. "Lead would leak so much radiation": could you please elaborate? The five naturally occurring unstable isotopes of lead have negligible abundance. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Feb 1 '19 at 21:00
  • $\begingroup$ According to Wikipedia the term "Iron Age" implies that the production of carbon steel has been perfected to the point where mass production of tools and weapons superior to their bronze equivalents become possible. And as far as lead, I'm sure it's negligible until you have roughly half the mass of your planet being composed of decayed radioactive material a.k.a. lead. But then again, I'm not a chemist. $\endgroup$ – Stephan Feb 1 '19 at 21:11
  • $\begingroup$ In the matter of steel, Wikipedia is painfully wrong. I have edited the article in question and inserted some requests for citations, in the hope that future readers will realise that the article author's insistence of steel has no basis. In the matter of lead, "negligible" means trace amounts; for all practical purpose lead is not radioactive -- lead is much less radioactive than human flesh, for example. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Feb 1 '19 at 21:22
  • $\begingroup$ I wasn't aware the half-life was so short with lead. Still would be a lead poisoning risk for ground water, unless the population evolved there natively and their bodies can deal. $\endgroup$ – Stephan Feb 1 '19 at 21:30
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    $\begingroup$ It may be worth pointing out that there are trace amounts of radioactive material in, essentially, anything that isn't sufficiently purified. This is actually a major problem for computers. $\endgroup$ – Cadence Feb 1 '19 at 21:34


It is one of the most malleable and least reactive elements. If it were more available from ancient times people would be making more things with it... If it were as abundant as iron, for example, I imagine people would not covet it so much. Rather than writing with ink on paper, people would be writing important documents and books by carving on thin golden sheets which could last for millenia.

A lot of the knowledge from ancient times that was lost during the dark ages might never be lost in such a scenario. Technological progress before the modern age would be faster and more resilient to disasters and human shenaningans due to this more durable means of knowledge preservation and spreading.

  • $\begingroup$ Gold is no more useful than lead in this respect. Why do you think gold would be used like this? $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Feb 1 '19 at 20:00
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    $\begingroup$ This could be feasible using some sort of chisel-like tool, scribing with a tactile symbol system (i.e. Braille). Sense the contrast between symbols and the surface would be low, using eyes to actually read the content would be difficult. Tactile systems would also allow ease of use in the dark. $\endgroup$ – Tmartin Feb 1 '19 at 20:38
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    $\begingroup$ Hard to believe. The main drivers for metal use are tools, weapons and construction, and the gold is too heavy and too malleable for all of these. Also, inscriptions on clay tablets can survive some disasters even better than gold, but they were abandoned in favor of vellum, paper, etc. for convenience. $\endgroup$ – avek Feb 1 '19 at 20:52
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP I'm not sure asking for an example of something that was lost is possible to answer. It was lost, so how would anyone know they knew it? :p $\endgroup$ – Stephan Feb 1 '19 at 21:14
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    $\begingroup$ Gold is the best answer. If it were more common it would be hugely useful especially to preindustrial people. It occurs native in metallic form so you do not need any tech - you can work it with a rock. Unlike lead and copper it will not oxidize even in seawater. You could sheathe your ships in gold and they would be immune to shipworms. A gold leaf roof is good forever. Using stone age tech you could make a frying pan out of gold which will stay shiny and not poison you. $\endgroup$ – Willk Feb 1 '19 at 22:07

The simplest answer is - no.

Elemental densities are well-known, and listed here. There are 19 known elements denser than palladium, and 8 of those are radioactive. Of the remaining 11, the only three "common" ones are mercury, gold, and platinum, none of which have much metallurgical magic unknown in 1500. Elements like tungsten and iridium are pretty much unworkable with 1500's technology, and the remainder simply don't have a lot going for them in revolutionary terms.


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