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I may have been too ambitious with one property of my advanced Mesoamerican civilisation. The very summarised background (which you can take as given; don't frame challenge this) is that after a wise king in Teotihuacan invented a writing system that was usable by the general populace, and started sailing the Caribbean for guano, both the population and its literacy rate boomed. Over time bureaucratic realms replaced tribute empires, and by the 13th century Mesoamerica had become a second China on the world stage; a developed society of a hundred million people. Contact with Europe was eventually established but because this time plagues went in both directions, and the Mesoamericans were better equipped to fight any invaders, both continents survived with their societies largely intact.

Here's the thing: I want to maintain a number of changes from Europe, and probably the most consequential one is probably the continued lack of iron. My Mesoamericans can have copper and gold, for jewels and currency, and a bit of bronze is possible for specialised use (there was some tin in Mexico); but no iron except for the few trinkets they traded from people in the Pacific Northwest.

So what does the absence of iron and steel entail? For many applications of iron there are alternatives: woodworking joints instead of nails, a macuahuitl instead of a sword, bronze for precise tools. This page even suggests that bronze is not that much softer than iron but just easier to produce because you only need the one kind of ore. The absence of steel might be more consequential, but right now I cannot think of a place where you really need the hardness of steel in the middle ages; except in blades, and blades only need to be super-hard in order to not be broken by other blades or on hardened armour. If nobody has steel, then that arms race doesn't exist, to my understanding at least.

What else does the lack of iron entail? Cannons are going to be hard but this society can do without gunpowder entirely. Having to use wooden/stone/bronze ploughshares would make agriculture a bit more inconvenient, but not debilitatingly so, I hope.

So I am looking for the most radical and consequential changes that a lack of iron would effect on an otherwise High Medieval society. I hope they are not too debilitating, preventing a China-like state from even existing.


Specifically, the China/Europe-in-the-year-1250-like properties I want are:

  • High population
  • High degree of urbanisation
  • Bureaucratic government
  • Enough food surplus to allow for expenses on sciences, arts, a standing army, etc.

Note that I'm not asking for any specific Inventions like clockwork, printing press, etc, unless any of those happen to be crucial for any of the above items. I really want a subcontinent as developed as 1250s Europe, with expansive private commercial enterprises, with many different cities and places where people could pursue arts and sciences. And preferably with a bureaucratic government rather than a hereditary one.

Does a lack of iron stand in the way of any of those? If so, to what degree, and are there creative ways around it?

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    $\begingroup$ Hi AlexP. You are going to comment that High Middle Ages as a term does not apply to Song Dynasty China, and that the two were very different cultures in the 1250s and so on. I don't care; aesthetically my empire would have properties of both; but organisationally speaking closer to China. $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm Apr 10 at 0:07
  • $\begingroup$ Can you tell specifically what you need from 1250 AD China, which you can't get in, let's say, 1 AD China? $\endgroup$ – Alexander Apr 10 at 0:32
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander Really the items in the bullet points. I don't think 1 AD China would have printing for example. There's also that 1250s China had much higher population and thus more room for arts and philosophy, and it was much more bureaucratic and less of a warlord state. $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm Apr 10 at 0:37
  • $\begingroup$ you didn't specifically mention printing press. And this is something that can be done without iron or steel. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Apr 10 at 0:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander It was just one of the examples of the kinds of technological and artistic advancements you can get by having a sizeable portion of your populace living in safe cities instead of on farms. I'm not specifically asking for printing press, only for a society that could invent the printing press among other things. $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm Apr 10 at 0:42
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The absence of iron and steel, from one perspective, mostly just makes other endeavors more expensive.

For example, with a bronze (instead of steel) tire on your chariot or wagon wheels, your folks must replace tires (and wheels) more often. The society needs a percentage more wheelwrights, and correspondingly more lumbermen to sell them wood, more miners to sell them bronze, and more farmers to sell all those new folks food.

Looked at another way, it might cost 7 ningis to replace a tire every three months...but an 18-ningi steel tire would last a whole year.

If a merchant is paying that wagon to haul sea-otter pelts from California, the cost of that job is higher for bronze tires than for steel. The cost of those pelts at market will be a bit higher to cover those costs.

Of course, it's not just tires. It's plows and barrels and cookware and llama-shoes (no horses) and tools and weapons and sailing rigging and so much more. The emperor and subordinate governors need more folks toiling (a bit less efficiently) to fill the royal treasury and pay for empire-expanding efforts.

However, steel isn't everything. The Emperor can find offsetting efficiencies. The Bourbon kings of France and the Incas both had some clever organizational ideas on how to keep the peasants hard at work. The Dutch and English figured out how to harness banking and debt-based finance to decentralize economic decision-making (and raise enormous sums to win wars). The Portuguese leveraged secret navigational data into a wealthy empire. You can certainly make your Americans sophisticated and advanced.

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  • $\begingroup$ you don't need more farmers to get better technology you need less farmers, you need farming that is productive enough you can feed a lot of non-farmers. If growing a bushel of wheat costs more there is less to go around. $\endgroup$ – John Apr 10 at 5:10
  • $\begingroup$ @John sure, some places the answer will be A, some places the answer will be B. Improving efficiency of food production, among many other possible non-technological improvements, was intended to be implied by the final paragraph. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Apr 10 at 5:23
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Before I answer your question...

You've asked two questions. In the title, you ask how to have a perpetual Bronze Age. In the body text, you ask if the lack of iron in one hemisphere would, for lack of a better brief statement, upset the status quo.

Those are very, very different questions. You might want to update your title.

Now, on to the question.

You have some cool pros and cons that would make a good story.

Some Cons:

  • Plows. Europe can take greater advantage of agriculture than Mesoamerica.

  • Shovels/Picks. Construction benefits from iron, as would irrigation.

  • Horseshoes. Do not underestimate the value of horseshoes.

  • Canon....

Some Pros:

  • Europeans in Mesoamerica would have only a momentary advantage. Ammunition depletes, iron rusts, tools break... and there's little to no opportunity to repair or replace.

  • The Iraq/Iran war in the 90s proved that a technologically superior force can be pressed and overcome by shear numbers.

  • Metal was common during the high middle ages - but not at any level resembling what we see today. Quality varied considerably. We're talking the equivalent of Europe 1,000-1,250 A.D. If I recall correctly, few soldiers wore significant metal armor. While all would have knives, many were armed with halberds, spears, and pikes. Expeditionary forces were likely better armed and armored, but I believe it would be a mistake to think of combat in terms of the old Civilization III tanks-vs-spearmen concept.

  • Which leads me to skill. If you think about it, our historical perspective is that the unarmed but skilled warrior is far more terrifying than an armored warrior of almost any skill. Bronze weapons are certainly weaker than iron/steel weapons ... but a bronze weapon in the hand of a skilled warrior is superior to almost any weapon in the hands of a lesser-skilled combatant.

Conclusion

On the Mesoamerican home turf, iron would not provide a dramatic advantage. It's overcome by sheer numbers.

On European soil, iron is more of a problem — but it's not a guarantee of success. Trained warriors are not to be trifled with, and one can assume that a Mesoamerican expeditionary force would represent a high skill set as we can assume the same for a European force.

When it comes down to it, you don't want any answer to give you a definitive pro or con answer. You want the variables, because you can obviously write your story with the outcome you want. What you need are the strengths and weaknesses so you can develop an interesting and believable story. I hope that's what I've given you.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Europeans in Mesoamerica would have only a momentary advantage" - long enough for Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro to succeed. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Apr 10 at 4:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander We're not talking about the Mesoamerica Cortez visited. We're talking about a High Middle Ages and very well organized Mesoamerica. Coretz found, by comparison, completely disorganized tribes with nowhere near the industrial capability that the OP's Mesoamerica would have. But your point is well taken. $\endgroup$ – JBH Apr 10 at 4:53
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH I would hardly called the Aztec disorganized tribes. Also the Aztec had copper tools just like the OP's proposal. $\endgroup$ – John Apr 10 at 5:05
  • $\begingroup$ If a soldier is wearing armor chances are they are skilled, armor is expensive. Also skill is a double edged sword, being very skilled can hamper when the techniques you learned no longer work, techniques honed against unarmored opponents are not good against poeple in steel chainmail, helmets, and breastplates. even in Eurasia people with iron had a huge advantage over those without. $\endgroup$ – John Apr 10 at 5:25
  • $\begingroup$ That's not how I expected the title to be interpreted, but alright. @John Organised around Tenochtitlan and its sister cities in a tributary relationship. The relations were built on benefit to the city, rather than mutual benefit. That's why it collapsed so easily, because nobody besides the people of Tenochtitlan wanted to remain Aztec. $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm Apr 10 at 8:59

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