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Given a semi-nomadic culture of arctic "hunter gatherers" with trade routes to the South, would it be impossible for them to develop metallurgy?

The setup I had in mind was that they trade ivory and/or furs for raw material and/or partially refined metal, take it home to their permanent winter camp and bang out some respectable tools and weapons over the long winters. Is this setup believable and realistic?

I'm asking largely because some have suggested that people who didn't really bother to develop agriculture or domestication, for the most part, wouldn't be technologically advanced enough, or somehow wouldn't be able to support a smith and forge.

Seems to me that if their hunting grounds were rich, and they're largely stuck indoors during the winter anyway, why not hone a craft?

They may have picked up the basics from their trading partners, but over time, could they become more or less experts in a medieval to early renaissance world?

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    $\begingroup$ As you can maybe tell from most answers, the biggest issue you face is that your culture is semi-nomadic, not that they live in the arctic. Perhaps you might change the title of your question? $\endgroup$ – Falc Jun 20 '17 at 9:12
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    $\begingroup$ Do you mean "develop" and then start buying some metal from traders or do you mean "learn from others"? You kind of suggest both. There is absolutely no problem with the 2nd option as this has happened in reality $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Jun 20 '17 at 13:05
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    $\begingroup$ Metallurgy and metal-working are different industries. "Metallurgy is also the technology of metals: the way in which science is applied to the production of metals, and the engineering of metal components for usage in products for consumers and manufacturers. [...] Metallurgy is distinguished from the craft of metalworking, although metalworking relies on metallurgy, as medicine relies on medical science, for technical advancement." (Wikipedia) $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jun 20 '17 at 15:36
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I think with a permanent settlement and therefore forge it's not too unrealistic that your're tribe could developed advanced metallurgy. One absolute requirement for this is resource availability in their territory, but that's an easy fix. If you want them to trade their metal items (or have better ones then others) they might have access to an unique ore, maybe from meteorites in the area or something else.

The biggest problem I see is burnable material - in the Arctic that is neither easy to come by, nor is it a good idea to 'waste' it in a smelter, when you need to keep your homes warm. It seems a bit unrealistic to me, that they would gather wood over the summer to then use it for metalworking in the winter (there seems no good reason to do this).
The best solution I can come up with would be natural resources near their settlement (pick one from coal, oil or natural heat from volcanic activity). This also gives you a reason why they would settle at this place before developing metallurgy.

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    $\begingroup$ A coal seam exposed by a river seems completely reasonable to me. Seems like that would make for an excellent site for a winter camp. Nice thoughts. $\endgroup$ – apaul Jun 20 '17 at 4:41
  • $\begingroup$ Why wouldn't a smith build his forge on the end of a long house? Two birds with one stone if you ask me. Nice and warm. $\endgroup$ – apaul Jun 20 '17 at 4:44
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    $\begingroup$ @apaul34208 Because you only need a bit of wood/coal to get a nice temperature for the house, but you need A LOT to melt metals (also that almost too hot for the house). That being said its not unreasonable to channel some of the smelter heat into the houses. $\endgroup$ – Nicolai Jun 20 '17 at 4:47
  • $\begingroup$ The videogame Gothic3 covers it nicely, the best smiths and metallurgists are in the far north, and they use a volcano as a heat source for their forge. $\endgroup$ – vsz Jun 20 '17 at 8:11
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    $\begingroup$ Northern (sub-Arctic) settlements included communal dwellings - apartment blocks if you like - where your metalworkers could have arranged a forge to warm the whole block. See Skara Brae. $\endgroup$ – Brian Drummond Jun 20 '17 at 14:42
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I don't see any obvious reasons why that couldn't work.

Fuel, as noted by some other answers, could be an issue if your people live entirely on the treeless tundra, but if they spend any time at all (perhaps only winters) in or near the taiga, they'll have plenty of wood to burn for fuel. Reindeer (which, even if not domesticated, were traditionally one of the main sources of meat and furs for arctic hunter-gatherers) live in both regions, often migrating between them, so it's perfectly reasonable for your arctic people to follow them.

As for "wasting" heat that could by used for staying warm (pointed out as a potential problem in some other answers), the obvious solution is to build your forge inside the hut or tent or dugout that you're living in. You're going to be heating that space anyway, so you might as well get some useful work out of it. Build your forge with a big pile of rocks to store the heat, fire it up in the evening, work some metal while you're waiting for the rocks to heat up, and finally douse the fire and let the rocks keep the place warm all night while you sleep.

As a bonus, you can also use the stored heat for cooking food, and the same structure can also serve as a sauna for washing up. Minus the forging, that's pretty much how a traditional Finnish savupirtti ("smoke cottage") worked, and I see no reason why something similar couldn't work for your people, too. Of course, you don't have to combine all those functions into one structure, but if heat and fuel are scarce, that's one way to optimize it.

The biggest issue I see with your scenario, however, is economic: if the metal is not produced locally, why would traders bother to haul it all the way up north as raw ingots, when they could probably (especially early on, before your arctic smithing tradition was established) make a much better profit hauling finished goods instead? Traditionally, metal was usually either worked locally close to where it was mined, or it was traded to cities where smiths and other craftsmen would gather. Your proposed system, with scattered smiths in the arctic working on traded metal, kind of runs counter to that pattern.

That said, I don't think that's an insurmountable issue. Certainly many places historically had village smiths, specializing in simple repairs and adaptations of existing tools. It doesn't seem entirely implausible for some basic metalworking skills to become a useful and established trait among your arctic population, especially if trade in metal goods was common but irregular (so that metal tools would be reasonably common, but not always easily replaced if they broke), making the ability to repair them useful.

Getting the necessary skills introduced in the first place could be an issue, but that could plausibly come down to a one-time event, maybe even a single trained smith fleeing to or being captured by the arctic folk. And once established, it's entirely plausible that your arctic folk might develop some unique small-scale metalcrafting tricks or traditions that would justify exporting their produce, at least as specialty items or curiosities. Instead of importing raw metal, they might still (mostly) import simple metal tools and weapons and rework them (for practical reasons, or just to decorate them), but that could still allow the maintenance of a local smithing tradition.

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TLDR; It's possible that this could work, but it would not be in the interest of your trading partners.

The biggest problem with this scenario is that if they don't have the metal ore to begin with, it is unlikely they would be able to compete. The Southern trading partners in this case are providing the metal, why would they not craft their own tools and weapons and trade these for the ivory and pelts instead? This would ensure that your semi-nomadic tribe is reliant upon their technology giving a major strategic advantage.

Not only this, but while your nomads are crafting tools in the winter, the Southerners can do so all year round. They also have more resources to spare (since they aren't going to trade away all of their refined metal) than your people would and so can afford to experiment leading to more advanced techniques.

The only way you can make this scenario work is if either your ivory is valuable enough for the trading partners to give up their technological advantage, or if your nomads have access to their own ore and it is the fuel that is supplied since iron will always be more valuable than wood or coal even in arctic conditions. Fuel is single use, a metal tool can last years with proper care.

Alternatively, have your Southerners destroyed by war/famine/plague etc. and their knowledge of metallurgy lost. This is unlikely to work and even if it did would not be a long-term situation.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Jun 20 '17 at 11:29
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I like the idea of a geothermal forge that was raised earlier, if your community could develop a way of safely using it. I imagine someone skilled in understanding an active lava flow quickly creating a smelter in its path out of brick, only to return later to break open the (hopefully) still exposed top and remove the ingot inside. This individual would be highly regarded in the community for his bravery, and possibly even seen as being slightly mystic, transforming one thing into another. Another scenario is a very active flow that predictably travels through a channel of some sort, or better yet, a deep crevise with a pool at the bottom into which they can lower a crucible.

The thing I like most about this answer is that it provides a reason for the craft to have developed here specifically - the heat put out by a lava flow could be much higher than anything anyone else has learned to create. (I'm assuming no one in your world has developed the furnace). This could allow them to fully melt lower temperature alloys such as copper and bronze, allowing them to create castings. It also gives them a reason to live in such a place - the heat from geothermal activity could make the surrounding area just warm enough to survive, and even attract other wildlife.

If you're willing to stretch the truth just a little bit, there have been lava flows on earth in excess of 1600 C, they just haven't happened for a very long time. Temperatures this high would have allowed for creation of high-carbon steel and steel castings. If you can imagine a way for these super-hot lava flows to continue (maybe the result of some very deep convection current that creates a hot spot), then this would be ideal for metalworking. Understanding of the hydrodynamics of the mantle would obviously be well beyond the limits of your community, however, so you likely wouldn't have to mention at all why it is as hot as it is, only that this community is the only one with access to such high temperatures.

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    $\begingroup$ iron melting point 1538 celsius - Lava is normally around 700-1200c .. Maybe copper or bronze working would be possible but definitely not steel. $\endgroup$ – JeffUK Jun 20 '17 at 13:42
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    $\begingroup$ This is what happens when you rely on memory rather than looking up numbers... I'll amend my response $\endgroup$ – bendl Jun 20 '17 at 14:01
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If it's semi-nomadic, and they have a permanent base to return to every set period of time (preferably once a year, on an earth-like planet) then there is only a small chance this would happen, the main problem is this, the fuel, and needed materials needed to maintain such a forge in a barren arctic environment (A coal mine would work) is practically impossible, you would need your ivory to be made of gold if you want european traders to come to the arctic carrying the needed supply to maintain such a thing...

a more realistic scenario would be mining of metals, and then trading them in turn for readily made tools/weapons.

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  • $\begingroup$ Oh, they don't move the forge, semi-nomadic not entirely nomadic. They return to a permanent winter encampment. I'll clarify that in the question. $\endgroup$ – apaul Jun 20 '17 at 4:21
  • $\begingroup$ @apaul34208 Ohhh i see.. if that's the case, i will edit my answer as well, sorry for not getting the question right~ $\endgroup$ – Kevin fu Jun 20 '17 at 4:25
  • $\begingroup$ No worries. Seems like a reasonable answer otherwise. I suspect if my arctic semi-nomads became good metal workers they'd eventually trade finished products as well, so moving over time to trade seems reasonable. $\endgroup$ – apaul Jun 20 '17 at 4:30
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As other commentators mentioned, it is rather hard to get fuel for metallurgy in the Arctic. But you can get metallurgy if there is metal just lying around - hundreds and thousands tons of meteorite pieces, made from high quality iron-nickel alloy. Then all you have to do is just cold forge it into shape required.

It happened in real life - Inuit made iron tools from 30 ton meteorite via cold forging. Details here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cape_York_meteorite

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding.SE vashu! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. This looks like a link-only answer. You very shortly summarised the most important point from the link in one sentence, but there is not really much context: how does it work? What are the problems? What are the advantages? When did they do this? Please take a moment to edit your answer as links can get outdates, which would leave your answer pretty much useless for future readers. That's why link-only answers are discouraged. $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Jul 11 '17 at 9:20
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The Inuit used to use native meteoric iron before European contact and Native Americans further south used native copper, both were processed using little or no heat. If there was a surface accessible seam of coal on their annual round (which wouldn't be at all unrealistic) then fuel wouldn't even be that much of a problem especially if they camp close to the seam for the winter. They could conceivably reach a high level of craft if they had the incentive and supplies to do the job, the control factors are regular supplies of raw materials and actually having a market domestic or export that demands product and can repay the material and labour expenses involved.

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