This question springs off this one.

I am building a science-fantasy world, because I like the idea of civilizations without metal I decided to incorporate it. However rather than make metal scarce I chose to render it usable to the people that live in the world. I did this by creating a life form inspired by metal/synthetic material eating bacteria. The Metal-Phages eat and nest in metal but also lethally contaminate it.

Thanks to the creative and knowledgeable people here and elsewhere, I was able to refine my ideas. That lead me to the realization that I don't need to block access to all metals just the types that can be worked into tools or alloyed together to achieve the same.

So I ask what Minerals, with an emphasis on metals and their alloys, were vital to the development of early human civilization?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Do you mean to render it unusable to people? $\endgroup$
    – Mikey
    Mar 7, 2016 at 20:21

5 Answers 5


1. Copper

The metal form of copper can be found in certain mineral veins. Finding a copper vein and playing with the "shiny pretty metal" was probably humanity's introduction to working with metals.

From this early introduction metal tool making was discovered.

2. Bronze

After discovering copper, metal smiths discovered that if you alloyed copper with another recently discovered metal, tin, you got a much tougher, durable, and hard metal called bronze.

This was both the introduction of the Bronze Age, but also the discovery that we could change a material's property by changing its composition.

3. Iron

Iron can (rarely) be found in its pure or alloyed metallic state. Iron as an ore is far more abundant than copper or tin. Discovering that if you heated certain rocks in combination with other rocks, you could get a new metal was a huge discover!

Early iron was very soft (for pure alloys) or very brittle (which is what they got most of the time). In fact as a working metal, early irons were inferior to the bronze alloys of the era. However, iron was much more abundant.

4. Steel

Steels came into being when certain smiths discovered that when you heated your iron with certain other rocks (limestone & coal) in certain proportions you got a much superior metal.

Early steels were both harder and tougher than iron and bronze. It was probably these early steels that lead to the belief in magic swords. For example, high quality steel sword could literally destroy iron or bronze weapons.

  • $\begingroup$ I do more or less agree with your list (for example, I am not sure that mesoamerican civilizations needed iron and steel), but anyway you do not address the question of why these metals are vital for the development of a civilization. $\endgroup$
    – Kolaru
    Mar 7, 2016 at 21:56
  • $\begingroup$ You also forgot tin, which is pretty important. $\endgroup$ Mar 7, 2016 at 21:57
  • $\begingroup$ Any other substance I should know about? $\endgroup$ Mar 7, 2016 at 22:30
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ All metals are useful. With today's technology we could replace any of these metals with another, even if the solution may not work as well or be more expensive. But for the founding of technological society, each of these provided an early and unique benefit to the society that discovered it. Without these 4, a technological society may have developed anyway but it would IMO have taken a much longer time. Also remember that no copper means no bronze, no iron means no steel. $\endgroup$
    – Jim2B
    Mar 7, 2016 at 22:46

Ever hear of the Bronze age? Copper, tin, lead, (brass and bronze). Copper and tin are the more important ones, lead was a softer material making the other two easier to work with. Later on Iron became very important, but we started with metals with lower melting points.

Gold is nice and 'easy' to work with too, but it is mostly useless for tools, Jewelry and money is it's primary function for non-technological folk.

  • $\begingroup$ Yes, I just knew that the information that I wanted wasn't likely to be found in a prearranged form. $\endgroup$ Mar 7, 2016 at 21:37

This answer is based on History Of Metallurgy (historyworld.net) and Wikipedia page on metallurgy history.

The first metals man was able to work with, were probably gold and silver due to their very low reactivity rates and high chances to find a pure gold or silver block. However, while these metals were aesthetic for the ancient peoples, they were too malleable to be put to use in objects where brittleness was required. You could easily make a usable drinking glass with gold or silver, but a pure gold knife would be useful only for cutting soft fruits.

The next metal people came across was copper. The metallic age began with rising use of copper by circa 7000 BC. Copper is less reactive than iron and melts at lesser temperature. This means that if/when the ancient peoples accidentally placed a mineral stone rich in copper in their camp fire, they ended up with pure copper lump in the morning. Heating and molding gold had already taught them how to melt these strange minerals and once they found copper tipped weapons useful in combat/hunting, copper age was on the way.

Another form of getting metallic objects was scavenging for meteorites after a shooting star crashed down in the vicinity. Meteorites are known to contain a high content of metal (specially iron) and relatively low on rock (silica). The people incorporating such pieces of meteorites would have found them to be extremely useful when used for cutting or stabbing.

Serbs were already smelting (heating ores in fire to melt the metal and obtain it in pure form) ores by 6000 BC. There are signs of copper smelting in southeastern Europe by 5500 BC. By 3500 BC, smelting was common around most parts of Europe.

The idea of alloys was in swing by 3000 BC. The first alloy to be prepared was bronze (copper and tin). Alloying technique originated in prehistoric Iraq and gradually spread to south Asia before becoming widespread and reaching Europe by 2000 BC.

The next and by far the most important metal was iron. Iron ore is harder to purify than copper or tin and requires complex processing. This is why iron mining and purification signs are found no sooner than 1300 years BC.


People were introduced to metal through pure lumps of gold and silver.

Copper, tin and lead containing stones were found to be refined easily by simply putting them in fire.

Iron containing meteorites were highly prized for their brittleness and strength.

Copper age began around 7000 BC. Alloying became a norm in around 3000 BC and iron mining was in place by 1200 BC.

So then, if you ask what metal people discovered before others, it would be gold. If the question is, which metal started the metal ages, it was copper, followed by tin, lead and finally iron.


If your question is (to continue from Youstay Igo) what metal to make inaccessible to prevent the large scale adoption of metals, the answer is copper.

Copper and iron were only metals with alloys really usable for tools (and hence technological innovation) and iron metallurgy evolved from techniques developed for copper. People would still use iron but the volumes available would be too small to be relevant. Besides iron is kind of consumable, so you could rely on the people themselves to remove all easily accessible iron over time.

Gold, silver, lead, tin, and zinc are also important and accessible early but without copper or iron they probably would not lead to anything undesirable. I mean, you could use silver or gold alloys with zinc, tin, and arsenic to do all kinds of things, but they are naturally rare enough for that to not really matter.

Compounds of mentioned metals were used in glass making for controlling color and glass making might allow developing technology for working at temperatures high enough for accidentally inventing alternate uses for those metals. So you might want to deal with iron as well just in case.

  • $\begingroup$ Okay what comes out of alloying gold with zinc, tin, and arsenic. $\endgroup$ Mar 10, 2016 at 0:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Trismegistus Gold alloys? The point was that gold is too rare for such alloys to break your scenario, so they can be ignored. $\endgroup$ Mar 10, 2016 at 19:01

Not directly an answer, but examples for you:

That Share of Glory is based on a society that uses ceramics instead of metal. As a result they have no understanding of electricity and magnetism outside of some Ben Franklin type experiments with lightning.


A second story, that I can't find now, but that was published in Analog back when it was still Astounding -- late 50's early 60's -- was a post nuclear war world trying to rebuild. All the easy ore was gone. The result was a tempering process for glass

There have been several stories -- one by Hal Clement, one by Charles Sheffield that have been on cold enough worlds that ice was used as a structural material.


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