As pointed out in Non-metal warfare, it is highly unlikely that a society without access to metals will be able to progress further than the stone age:

In my world the only available metal is copper and it is as rare as gold is for us. Other metals exist in salts and in rock, but ores and other common metal sources cannot be found for these elements. Noone can harvest metal from salts because reasons.

What sorts of settlements and technologies would be available to these people, and if their technology is limited eventually, what will be their eventual stopping point compared to our own history?

  • $\begingroup$ A society without access to metals cannot possibly reach the bronze age. Bronze is a metal. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Aug 3 '17 at 14:01
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP Oops! I missed the details, question has been updated. Bronze is made from copper and tin, however copper on its own can act as a substitute for bronze (albeit very rare now) $\endgroup$ – Aric Aug 3 '17 at 14:02
  • $\begingroup$ Everyday Life in the Old Stone Age by Marjorie Quennell and G. H. B. Quennell, New York, 1922, available in multiple formats at archive.org. Obviously obsolete, but you are writing fiction. Many more sources are available on the internet. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Aug 3 '17 at 14:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Mołot I see, perhaps issues such as why there's no metal should come before the results. I should have more depth in my world definition before I can ask a question like this. $\endgroup$ – Aric Aug 4 '17 at 8:38
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    $\begingroup$ @AricFowler Probably. Because reasons of lack of metals can have huge side effects. Also, stating your desired outcome, or things you would like to avoid, may help. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Aug 4 '17 at 8:38

Okay I'd like to point out that the stone age was about 3.4 millions years long and that by the end of it while humans weren't quite masters of all they surveyed we were well on the way.

I'm not going to try and say exactly how the world would be different but I'm going to point out some guide posts for you to look at while you work out the details you want. Machu Pichu is one of the most sophisticated cities ever built, ever not just using stone age technology, in some ways it is superior to modern cities, especially in it's management of water and its ability to withstand earthquakes and landslides. There are rice terraces in Myanmar that are earth and stone over 500 years old and built without metal tools. The pyramids were built with metal tools using stone age techniques the only difference would be construction time, with Egyptian monuments that's true generally, none of their work can't be done with stone tools. Construction endpoints cities and castles yes, high rises not so much, anything you can build with bricks and mortar is a goer.

Quality of life is generally quite high by the end of the Neolithic but the margin of survival isn't awesome, food surpluses from farming are small most places but you can support a priesthood and artisan makers.

Studies have shown that a flint head, and a steel broadhead do about the same amount of damage going in (assuming target isn't wearing metal armour) and the former tends to leave more material in the wound than the latter but requires more time and skill to create. Swords not so much, clubs of every kind and material oh yes, I'd look at what the Aztec and Maya did with stone age weaponry for references on what's possible.

The biggest difference is probably going to be forest cover, the temperate climax forests of Europe, weren't really heavily impacted by humans cutting for farming until the Iron Age, stone and bronze tools weren't up to the task of felling those trees and slash and burn doesn't work well in the wet European climate. The land that was cleared in Stone Age Europe was mostly high up or otherwise presented poor conditions for forest cover. That's going to impact population because there will be tens of thousands fewer acres under the plow worldwide.

There are a number of animals that I wouldn't care to hunt with stone age weapons, like the cavebear but none that you couldn't hunt, conceivably even to extinction. There are creatures that will probably go extinct regardless like the mammoth and other cold adapted Ice Age species.

Travel is interesting, the skin-boat or coracle was invented in the stone age and still in use in the 1900s but they weren't a long range mode of transport, there's nothing to stop you building a Viking Longboat or even a wood hulled clipper-frigate with stone tools, the clipper-frigate does ideally need metal bolts though you could do it with wood if you were willing to accept a lower performance. The question is are they worth building under those conditions and can you actually fell the wood you need for them, the wood is a bit of sticking point but you could use smaller trees and laminate but the work required to built something seaworthy, in the sense of "there's an ocean, we have no idea how big it is, let's go!", I don't know if that could be justified when the margin of survival is lowered by that much.

I think that's the broad strokes, let me know if there's something in particular you want me to talk about.

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    $\begingroup$ On ships, the Polynesians did pretty well with stone age ships. They got at least to Hawaii and, arguably, to Central America. Greek and Roman era ships could have been built as well though they wouldn't work as well without design changes in the rougher Atlantic waters. $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat Aug 3 '17 at 18:55
  • $\begingroup$ @ShadoCat Oh I was being thick when I missed that wasn't I? Of course you can colonise the whole Pacific Basin with stone age ships though transporting large fighting forces was where my head was at, which would be difficult without the more technologically advanced ships of at least the Graeco-Roman period sophistication I agree that they probably could have designed deep-sea vessels if they'd thought it worthwhile. I'm still not sure it would be worth it in terms of labour and materials though. $\endgroup$ – Ash Aug 4 '17 at 12:38

I am not really sure of premises.

As pointed out in my answer other technologies would take the place of metals in toolmaking.

Metals happened to be the "least effort" path in our history, but they are surely not "mandatory" for development beyond stone age (BTW: "bronze age" and "iron age" would have been impossible "by definition", of course, but I'm speaking about a social equivalent).

I'm not sure of what would be development in such a world, but I know quite well Japan middle-age had "castles" very different from the European ones (and from Chinese ones, for that matter).

I'm pretty sure we would have found a way to manufacture tools even without metals, probably using glass and ceramic to complement wood and stone (cutting and working wood and stone was a well-known technology in paleolithic).

Of course development in everyday life would have followed a different course, but imagining which would be very much "opinion based".


I think people are too focused on our ages and assuming another world must follow suit. Frankly, without metals society would develop the following:

1) Ceramics, which today are used to create sharper knives than most metals. Ceramics could replace metal nails, allowing for basic "advanced" construction. It might not replace metal beams, but wood laminate can replace most of those. So you might loose skyscrapers, but you could have most other buildings. Especially if you build with...

2) Concrete. You don't need metal to fortify concrete. You need something with a greater shearing strength than concrete. You probably could do that with ceramics, or by cultivating strong woods like oak or ironwood.

3) Biology, woodworking would become a specialty (and the agromanagement of the forests it depends on), but also note biolumenescence, bioheat, even biofuel (for the ceramic engines).

4) Optics. Glass is just melted sand. Optics would perhaps supplant biolumenescence.

Frankly, most technologies that depend on metal today could depend on a non-metal resource, with the probable exception of electronics. While you could conceivably create our modern VLSI and ULSI circuitry using only conductive and semi-conductive non-metals, they would be seriously clock-speed-limited due to the resistances involved.

If there were one great limitation, it would be fabrication time. Metal is easy to manipulate. Almost everything else isn't. Your society wouldn't develop as fast as ours... but how much time are you giving them to develop?

  • $\begingroup$ Time is irrelevant, i'm interested in whether their development is limited. Thanks! $\endgroup$ – Aric Aug 4 '17 at 6:52
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    $\begingroup$ With concrete, parts of Asia is using tar coated bamboo which has resulted in gr eater strength than steel. $\endgroup$ – Thorne Aug 4 '17 at 10:16

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