The trope of a sapient species (most often elves) that is allergic to/poisoned by iron is a common one in fantasy works; however, there are quite a few ways to make serviceable cutting tools without iron or steel once you have enough metallurgical knowledge under your belt.

However, before iron tools were ever a thing, copper and its alloys were the go-to toolmaking materials. Copper was developed and alloyed first as it can be simply refined from its ores or obtained natively on occasion, and is easily worked and alloyed with relatively crude tools compared to what it requires to make even decent quality iron.

This leads me to a question: how would a sapient species which can't handle copper develop tool metallurgy? Are there alternate routes they could take to get to the point of being able to work iron, or would they be forever stuck in the Stone Age, unable to get past their own aversions to copper?

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    $\begingroup$ Your question is confusing. You use the terms "allergy" and "aversion", and say the species "cannot handle copper". But these are all very different things. $\endgroup$ Jun 28, 2017 at 6:32
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    $\begingroup$ How would a species that finds arsenic poisonous develop bronze? By inventing the Cornish pasty. $\endgroup$ Jun 28, 2017 at 8:20
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    $\begingroup$ How allergic: if they're in a confined space with red hot copper can the copper particles in the air make them sick? $\endgroup$
    – Murphy
    Jun 28, 2017 at 14:37
  • $\begingroup$ How do we handle metals that are toxic to humans? Very carefully. But if copper itself is extremely problematic, I don't see why they can't skip copper specifically and use other soft metals. $\endgroup$
    – jfa
    Jun 28, 2017 at 19:12
  • $\begingroup$ As a data point, I provide: Plutonium. If there is a perceived benefit to using the material, a way will be found to use it safely. $\endgroup$
    – simpleuser
    Jun 29, 2017 at 16:06

4 Answers 4



If you are touching the copper during most of the "forging" process you are doing it wrong and there is no point when you have to touch it with your skin. The most common early copper tools, the axe and adze, are still completely usable by them. spears, sickles and swords would still be usable, as would knives for some applications. they would not be wearing copper jewelry no using copper cookware but they would still have plenty of uses for it.

they might even have MORE reason to use for copper, at least in warfare. If taking a shallow cut a sword caused a person to go into anaphylactic shock we would probably still be using them.

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    $\begingroup$ It also makes spears and arrows with break-away heads a really attractive option -- a small point held well in front of you minimizes the risk of cutting yourself, and makes a spear wall all the more intimidating. (Shield and spear lines could be risky though, if a nick is all it takes.) Squire types, possibly wearing thick gloves, would be able to carry bundles of replacements if the point was designed to break off. $\endgroup$
    – Random
    Jun 27, 2017 at 23:57
  • $\begingroup$ True on axes and spears -- I take it they'd have to wrap their ingots in some material when going from refiner to smithy, or for storage for that matter, basically? $\endgroup$
    – Shalvenay
    Jun 27, 2017 at 23:59
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    $\begingroup$ Also -- this answer poses...an intriguing frame challenge to the whole notion/trope of a race not using iron tools/weapons because they're allergic to iron, for that matter $\endgroup$
    – Shalvenay
    Jun 28, 2017 at 3:33
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    $\begingroup$ Worth pointing out that in this world, one of the earliest metals used was a Copper/Arsenic alloy, and as we all know, Arsenic is quite seriously poisonous. Smiths back then did suffer (sub-lethal) arsenic poisoning via inhalation, but users of the blades didn't. Today, many people are allergic to Nickel (so cannot wear cheaply gold-plated jewelry), but are not affected by Stainless Steel, in which the Nickel is locked up as an alloy. $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Jun 28, 2017 at 8:32
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    $\begingroup$ By the way, isn't it likely that if people suffered allergic reactions from handling copper, they'd rapidly think to lacquer any metal parts that they had to touch and couldn't wrap in leather or wood? (The effect of the blade on an enemy's wounds would be a positive not a negative! ) $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Jun 28, 2017 at 8:40

Gold and silver were also discovered fairly early and are pretty easy to work. They're scarce now because we've long since picked up every nugget that was laying around in the open, but in the ancient world there would have been enough around for people to experiment with. Once you figure out that there are ores containing metal that can be purified by the heat from a fire, that would give some eccentric natural philosophers the impetus to try experimenting on other rocks... eventually they would discover copper, tin, iron, etc.

The history of photography, by the way, proves that the likelihood of early death from regular exposure to toxic chemicals is not enough of a deterrent to stop people from experimenting until they develop the technology to a mature level. Some of your sapients would be driven by curiosity to experiment even with copper.


Meteoric iron.

Ancient people who could not refine iron from ore could make iron tools out of meteoric iron. I had read about this in the American Museum of Natural History, where they have 2 meteor fragments from Greenland that the natives had used as iron sources for centuries. You can see all the hammer marks on this one. It must have been a ton of work to break off chunks big enough to make anything.

from amnh.org enter image description here

I read just a little while ago that King Tut was buried with a knife made of meteoric iron.

from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/01/tutankhamuns-blade-made-from-meteorite-study-reveals/

enter image description here

But it was the iron blade that proved most intriguing. Iron was rare in ancient Egypt - much rarer than gold - and Mediterranean civilizations only began to forge iron tools confidently more than a thousand years after Tutankhamun's death.

The findings suggest ancient Egyptians knew how to work with iron even if they were unable to make it themselves and placed great value on what little iron they could obtain from meteorites.

One can cold forge meteoric iron as the Greenlanders probably did. I bet the Egyptians treated it like bronze.

Supposedly copper smelting was an outgrowth of ceramic technology and furnaces. If your copperophobes have ceramic tech and ample meteoric iron to mess with they might learn to hot forge the iron, and then try hot forging some rusty stuff from the ground that seems like meteoric iron, and so learn how to smelt iron.

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    $\begingroup$ Note that smelting iron is much harder than working iron. Plenty of cultures on Earth could easily do the latter while being incapable of the former. Iron tools were also often recycled/reworked into new tools directly, rather than being cast into ingots for further reprocessing (as with copper and bronze). In contrast, either is very simple with copper. Not to mention that copper (and bronze) casts aren't nearly as awful as iron casts; forging is pretty much required for iron/steel tools/weapons, especially if you don't have the right iron alloy (which brings us back to smelting). $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Jun 28, 2017 at 13:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Luaan: "And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)" $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Jul 9, 2017 at 22:40

Like what others have said, physical contact is not necessary for refining ore into usable metal, so if you want a copper/metal allergy to be more meaningful or restrictive, I suggest the allergy be more severe than being just based on physical contact.
For example, in the "Book of Swords" series by Fred Saberhagen, wizards can cast powerful spells given enough time, but large amounts of iron, such as that in the form of a sword or a suit of armor, will disrupt the caster's ability and make them quite vulnerable unless they have defenders of their own.
If you want a race that is exceptionally sensitive to metals so much so that it is miserable for them to interact with heavy metals at all, I could still see civilizations developing metal technology despite this handicap. Either a caste system that uses a underclass to handle metals or simply paying individuals a lot of money to do a job no one else wants to do. Perhaps a small minority are immune to the metal sickness (or however it is explained) and are tasked with smelting and crafting with metal?

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