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I'm working on a world where, with very few exceptions, metalwork is not possible/unwanted, and I'm trying to figure out what major differences one might see in daily life, and what would be necessary for a culture to continue to go without metal.

Considering a culture that is premodern but relatively advanced:

  • Is it possible that metallurgy would remain unknown to a culture with many other scientific discoveries under its belt?
  • What sort of every day items would be different or impossible to create without metal? Would something like glassmaking, for example, become impossible?
  • What would be the standard substitutes for metal objects? I'm thinking stone, wood, and bone. Is there anything else? If certain magic and alchemy replaces the role of metal in society, what would it need to be able to do to be so superior that people would choose that over metallurgy?
  • How high could buildings get?
  • Would a world in which ore is extremely rare be different in any other significant way?

There may be other considerations I'm missing. I'm less concerned with the specific bullet points as I am with figuring out what changes when metal is not in the picture.

~

I should note that this is a high fantasy setting, so technology will still be limited to pre-industrial age levels. I managed to delete that info while editing.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Oct 27 '14 at 3:54

13 Answers 13

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How advanced can they get? Very.

The most advanced non-metal using cultures known where those of Meso-America culminating in the Aztecs/Mexica. The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan is estimated to have had a population of 200,000-300,000 right before it fell to the rebellion. The city was built on manufactured ground, in the middle of a lake. It's fresh water supply came from several large aqueducts. A vast network of paved roads connected the entire Aztec empire together. They build bridges that spanned farther than any in Europe of the day.

In addition to metals, they also lacked beast of burden (horses, oxen etc) and the variable terrain made wheeled transport, even with good roads, impractical. (That's why the burrow is so strongly associated with Mexico to this day.)

The successive civilizations of Meso-America substituted large amounts of skilled and highly organized labor for metals and work animals. Stone was split to rough size with fire and soaked wood wedges. Then it was simply hammered with other stones repeatedly, crushing off the outer layer until the smooth surface was reached. It took a great deal of time and skill but some of the results are comparable to at least early industrial methods.

In fact, it has been hypothesized that the availability of cheap labor in the form of slaves, slowed and even stopped technological development in the classical world. Don't need a new gaget or a new material when you can just throw more people at the project.

Technologies:

  • Glass: Glass doesn't require metal as a material but working it to any degree would seem to require metal. For one thing, you need some long thin strong tools to manipulate molten glass at at a remove... that itself would not melt or catch fire. Glass itself was known since neolithic times but it only became a common substance in the Classical era. That suggest it needed metal tools to get rolling.
  • Ceramics: Not really metal substitutes. Although this or that ceramic may have this or that property of this or that metal, no ceramic has all the properties of any metal or alloy. There isn't really any function for which a specific ceramic would be a drop in replacement for metal.
  • Electricity: That would be out unless you postulate some kind of organic conductor.
  • Wood: Wood can and did substitute or preceded metal. In principle it can substitute almost entirely for metal in any structural application well up into 20th century levels of technology. If you had cheap labor, you could make elaborate but strong and lightweight structures like those used in the first 30 years of aircraft manufacturing.
    • Woods can also be hard. Ligum Vitae was a wood used for gears and ball bearings well into the 20th century. Bamboo substitutes for metal to this day in much of Asia.
    • On the other hand, working wood without metal is hard. Northern Europe remained sparsely settled well into the second millennium largely because of the inability of bronze tools to cut down oak trees for wood and field clearing.
    • But, if you postulated that the wood digesting enzymes of the various microbes that eat wood were readily available, it would be possible to work wood much like we work plastics today.

In any case, such a civilization would likely follow the Japanese model in which structures are continuously rebuilt instead of preserved. (Japan lacked hardwoods so no wooden structures lasted.)

Extrapolating from historical models, a low-metal society would likely be highly structured and hierarchal, with skilled and unskilled human labor substituting for the abilities of metal. In essence, the society would be mostly software with ver little hardware. Any disruption in social organization could lead to a technological and economic collapse. That seems to have happened in the Americas over and over again.

I would suggest starting with a study of Meso-American societies and think about how they might have developed further.

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    $\begingroup$ The Aztecs smelted gold. They smelted a lot of gold. That is metallurgy. $\endgroup$ – fredsbend Oct 4 '14 at 7:16
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    $\begingroup$ @fredsbend Gold is pretty much useless for tools, weapons and structures though since it bends by the slightest force. $\endgroup$ – API-Beast Oct 4 '14 at 10:24
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    $\begingroup$ Gold is a great conductor of energy, though. That's one way forward with electricity. $\endgroup$ – CAgrippa Oct 4 '14 at 22:02
  • $\begingroup$ Excellent answer. I would also like to mention that the Aztecs had floating gardens called Chinampa to utilize their lakes. Imagine that they could grow about 7 crops a year! Terrace farming of the Incas is also a wonderful technology. $\endgroup$ – vikingmaster Oct 5 '14 at 19:15
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    $\begingroup$ >Any disruption in social organization could lead to a technological and economic collapse. I would imagine this could make for a good premise of a story, definitely leaves room to explore hardships affecting society as a whole. $\endgroup$ – Thebluefish Oct 6 '14 at 1:20
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Assuming there's only trace amounts of metals (enough for life but not enough to work with), there's some stuff that could possibly be replaced:

  • Blades and cutting implements could be fashioned out of volcanic rock. Since the flexibility of molding isn't readily available, they would be limited to shapes and sizes that can be sculpted. They would also probably be quite heavy - while there are lightweight rocks, those rocks are usually not the sort you can sharpen.

  • Engineering would have to develop very careful sculpting techniques; again, without molding (which may be possible with stone and wood, but doesn't give you very sturdy structures and is probably a lot more complicated) you have to make the most of the matter you've already got clumped around. If you can't precisely control the shape and features of parts for machines, they're likely to be much larger and much slower to compensate.

  • Glassmaking wouldn't be impossible; if you can make fire and have sand available, it would probably work. You can get tubes from reeds that you cover with some kind of dust (or harder glass) and probably have to swap out a lot more often but I guess it could work. Alternatively, you could sculpt a glass-blowing structure.

  • Everyday items would probably be all wooden and made from interlocking pieces or sculpted out of large blocks of the material. That could work well enough. Some pretty advanced engineering understanding of forces and material strength would be required to get reliable machinery just out of interlocking parts though (they're probably be very good at limiting the directions of force vectors due to loads and redirecting them to reinforce the structure rather than pull it apart).

  • In general, you'd have to use volcanic glass and sharp stones for rudimentary tools, use large stones and sculpting to get structures and heat-resistant machines, wood for everything that doesn't have to be sharp or heat-resistant and bone for convenience (bones are hard but they can degrade and they always come in either cage/enclosed shapes or long stick shapes - bone dust however might be useful if you grind it down and apply paste or something). edit- outis in the comments provides examples of weapons made from wood and volcanic glass and has also posted relevant links - see his comments for more.

  • Buildings would probably not have limitations on their height, but they would in the structure to get there. Think of the egyptian and mesoamerican pyramids - pretty tall, but not exactly blocks of flats. You could get concrete though I guess, so if you find a good strong substitute for metal supports (perhaps, have some way to force crystalline structures, like titanium or diamonds have, on molten rock, you might be able to get materials strong enough for this). edit- However, in the comments outis warns that there is a height limit for pyramids and you can support concrete buildings differently or not at all - check his comments for more details

In any case, considering that metals are pretty important to biology and that despite needing trace amounts, they have to be pretty abundant in nature, I'd say that it isn't likely that you have biology like ours but so little metal on a world that it's practically non-existent. You could have a world where the metal on the upper layers has been stripped by previous inhabitants and the present ones use the metals in the biosphere's cycle to survive, completely unaware of what a metal even is.

It is however unlikely that you could get very far without thinking of, or trying metallurgy, even if there's very little metal around. As you can see, you still need to be able to work a forge of sorts. Heating materials is a great way to remove impurities, reform and combine them, so you'd have the necessary technology eventually no matter what. If it was just some rogue group that was trying out the tabooed practice of smelting metals from ores and using them to craft tools or weapons, they'd eventually motivate everyone to do that - it would be too effective. Imagine medical tools for instance.

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    $\begingroup$ @Mark Yeah but what if the stone pipe is part of a large vat or something? I'm far from an expert but it seems like if the mountain can't come to the glassblower, maybe they can go to the mountain instead, is what I'm saying. $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Oct 3 '14 at 21:52
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    $\begingroup$ Re heavy-weight weaponry, if you made a sword from a light-weight wood (balsa is fairly strong; it was once used to build aeroplanes) and embedded a thin cutting blade made from obsidian, you could have quite a formidable weapon. $\endgroup$ – tobyink Oct 4 '14 at 8:08
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    $\begingroup$ @tobyink: like the Aztec macuahuitl or the Maori mira-tuatini (though the latter uses sharks' teeth)? $\endgroup$ – outis Oct 5 '14 at 5:38
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    $\begingroup$ Pyramids have a mass limit that depends on the ground that supports them (too massive and the pyramid will start to sink into the ground in parts, causing gaps & other issues), which, along with the angle of repose, effectively creates a height limit. Was your point about concrete reinforcement about its necessity, or more to do with the maximum build height of a culture? Regarding the former, metal reinforcement isn't needed for concrete structures; the Romans didn't use it. In modern times, some have used bamboo as reinforcement, but it's still somewhat experimental, from what I've read. $\endgroup$ – outis Oct 5 '14 at 5:41
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    $\begingroup$ @ivy_lynx: the ability to nearly decapitate a horse with a single blow certainly establishes its lethality. For a thrill, check out the Deadliest Warrior's rather crude "obsidian chainsaw". $\endgroup$ – outis Oct 5 '14 at 21:25
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I think that this question is leaning too heavily on preconceived notions of "how things work" and overlooking possible solutions that are outside of its box. Just because human technology developed in a particular way, that does not limit technological societies to developing in exactly that way.

For example, a society where metalwork is not possible might find biological solutions to problems. A world with a rich biosphere would give plenty of puzzles that would push the development of chemistry, such as "What causes bio-luminescence?"

There are also quite a variety of different naturally occurring rocks. Flint, slate, obsidian, marble, and (as Pipper Chip pointed out) obsidian are all extremely useful materials (even today).

Glassblowing does not require metal tools, it only requires a hot-burning energy source such as coal, a plentiful supply of an appropriate sand, and tools that will hold up to the required temperatures. It might not be easy, but it should be possible.

Another area where such a civilization would probably be very strong is in ceramics. Though not as strong as metals, they can still fill many of the roles that metals fill in our society such as knives. Plastics are another possibility.

Eventually, the society will discover metals and though it might not use them the way we do, they could certainly master them well enough to create electric circuits.

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    $\begingroup$ Don't forget some of the almost-magical properties of obsidian! Monomolecular edges are possible with it! $\endgroup$ – PipperChip Oct 3 '14 at 16:31
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A world without metal is a very troublesome world indeed. For a short answer, the most advanced stone age (I say this loosely, as the official stone age ended millenias before) is the mesoamerican civilizations (Mayan, to name one), which was pretty advanced. They didn't have metal tools at all. Their primary tools were made of stone, hide and rubber.

Now, imagine a world without metal:

  1. No wagons. While carts are possible, wagons would be too big and too heavy for oxen or horses to pull. This is because they will be using stone connectors and poles for the wheels. While the wheels itself can be carved of wood, it can't be used for connections. You see, wood is not slippery, even if you sand it properly and apply oil on it, the friction will cause it to burn after a few hours of travel. Middle age wagons solved this problem by applying iron to the parts that rubs with plentiful application of grease. This was probably why the Mayans didn't have any wagons.

  2. There is no problem with making glass, as metal tools are not necessary for making glass. To substitute metal, you can use carved wood, covered in resin, like the Chinese lacquerwares.

  3. A world with no metals, will suffer malnutrition. If your population is human, then they will need carbon and iron as primary nutrition. In our world, we take that for granted. In a world without metal, the absence of iron will kill your people as we need iron to make red blood cells. If we assume that there's just a little bit of iron in your world, then we can already imagine the world to be somewhat barren, with trees stunted, its people small and out of breath easily. It's the same if you make plumbum your people's necessary element. I believe the only way such worlds can thrive, would be if they're silicon based organisms, substituting iron with maybe acid or helium to carry the necessary gas to the cells.

  4. It also means that unless the structures they built are made of wood, it will take a very long time for them to even build a city hall or temple of stone. Let's look at the example of pyramids. It took them decades just to build one, and that was with the help of iron/bronze tools. We know sculping stone using another stone is way harder, so it will take them maybe 4-6 times more than their iron counterparts (I'm pulling this number out of my backside). Nobody can tell for sure how much longer they will take as archeologists haven't agreed on the time it took the mesoamericans to finish one of their pyramids, but you can tell that it's definitely a long time, and it's smaller than their Egyptian counterparts.

Still, if there's actually minerals in the ground and that your people haven't had the knowledge to use it yet, then you can kick my 3rd point away. It's still going to be a very harsh world to live in, as evidenced by how bronze age made stone age extinct and iron age made the bronze age go extinct. If there's magic though, then they can remove stone altogether and just use wood. A house made of wood is actually very sturdy, sturdier even than stone buildings in earthquake prone areas (depends on the building methods). A spear made of sharpened wood, charred on fire is just as sharp as an iron spear, though obviously not as hard. Also, you don't need iron to make bow and arrows. You can make both bows and arrows by only using rocks and fire.

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  • $\begingroup$ RE 1) Read through this article: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lignum_vitae. RE 3) if there are literally no metals, then our bones are in trouble, among many other organs I suspect. $\endgroup$ – NPSF3000 Oct 6 '14 at 23:26
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Just a brief comment on the glassblowing...

Naturally occurring stone tubes form in limestone caves, as water drips through the centre of the tube... like a thin, hollow stalactite. I think they are called straws.

They aren't usually very big, and you have scope within fiction to modify this in many ways.

So that gives you a heat resistant tube you could blow glass with.

Regarding buildings - The cathedrals of europe were built using intricate timberwork, held together with oak pegs. If you can bore a hole, then you can dowel and peg joints. That should get you buildings as large as you need.

As for boring holes - well the best drills I use today are tipped with diamond. If you have good access to diamond or carborundum (ruby/saphire etc) then you can drill or cut nearly anything, and polish to a mirror finish. Stone cutting wheels are still made of bitumenized cloth, loaded with mineral abrasives. I do carve stone, and for detail polishing I use rubber blocks filled with corundum powder. Natural latex and powdered diamond?

A note on sophistication - I am led to understand that the mesoamerican cultures produced aspheric lenses. They had the skill and knowledge to produce sophisticated optics, that have only recently become available in our society.

Given that glass is an option, and sophisticated optics are possible, and crystals are permitted... well it's not a big stretch to turn a simple rod of ruby into a laser, if you can get enough power into it... like a bright enough light. Fibre optics? Broadband? Semiconductors? (silicon crystals)

Many of the minerals we are familiar with involve traces of metals... metals that we are not familiar with, such as gallium. Would those elements be available, though not "refined" as pure metals? That would give you access to pretty much the entirety of modern computer tech. Microprocessors are made using photo etching systems on amorphous silicon.

Possibly the trickiest bit would be connecting into the silicon, which is currently done with gold wires. Well gold is one of the few metals that is found in nature in a pure form - no refining required.

Unless you are going right out of the universe, remember that iron, with an atomic weight of 56, is the most stable and therefore most abundant element in this universe. Heavy elements, like uranium, break down until they reach iron. Light elements, like hydrogen, fuse until they reach iron. The universe produces iron. That's why our planet is made of it, which is why it is magnetic.

Even if you have a planet that is iron scarce, iron just falls out of the sky. Many tales of swords forged from sky iron, or shooting stars. Meteorites are mainly iron.

So much for my brief comment! Good luck.

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  • $\begingroup$ This doesn't directly answer the question but it is a very nice supplement to existing answers, +1 $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Oct 4 '14 at 14:19
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    $\begingroup$ Iron isn't currently the most abundant element in the universe; though iron's numbers are growing, hydrogen is by far more abundant, followed by helium, then oxygen & carbon. Iron is the most abundant element in the Earth, followed by oxygen and silicon, but its distribution is skewed towards the core. The most abundant element in the crust is oxygen, followed by silicon, then aluminum, then iron. $\endgroup$ – outis Oct 5 '14 at 5:59
  • $\begingroup$ In addition to gold, you can find copper, silver and platinum as native metals. The current theory of the development of copper metallurgy has it starting with working the native form before extracting it from stone ores. $\endgroup$ – outis Oct 5 '14 at 20:28
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I agree with certain aspects of many of the answers, but feel like by default we are limiting ourselves to preconceptions of how technologies were unlocked, perfected or utilized.

Think of many of the things we are discovering the unique material properties of today and apply that to a people who have survived off them. For instance, spider's silk is something we are discovering the uses of but has been in existence naturally since prehistoric times. It's stronger than steel and almost as strong as synthetic materials like kevlar, which is woven to make bulletproof vests. Spider's silk is also a conductor on par with copper, so I'd say circuitry is also not an impossibility. Carbon is a vastly abundant material that occurs in so many natural and unnaturally occurring allotropes, with varying material properties. We arrived at some of these with technological advances that probably relied upon devices using metallurgy but didn't necessarily have to.

To say that a world without ore (iron, copper, etc) would result in the end of humans with blood using iron as an oxygen-carrying element is a bit close minded. I'm alive and surviving right now and healthily and haven't had to munch on iron ore to do it. Our iron is 'trapped' in a biological cycle and I don't think melting people down would result in an iron yield enough to forge weapons or anything useful.

One thing not addressed is the establishment of measurement for the advancement of a culture. Are we saying that it's the invention of technology or the ingenuity of it? Is it technology which benefits and creates, kills and destroys or both? Even some of our most destructive weapons can be achieved without the use of metallurgy. Is the advancement of a culture based on wealth? Salt was used as currency before precious metals and was worth more at one point. How about longevity? Some primitive cultures have been around much longer than the technologically advanced cultures that have risen and fallen.

The main point of all of this is, for a high fantasy setting story, by omitting the use of metallurgy we are creating an opportunity to reinvent technology. I would assume that you aren't writing a manuscript on how your civilization created each of their technologies and in a fantasy world, small gaps would certainly be allowed.

Some notes to add. Spider's silk though may not have compression strength for load bearing, it's tensile strength is immense and its toughness is also incredible. This to me gives ideas for armors, for structures can be used for tension lines. In combination with some ideas that Raven has proposed I'm sure a makeshift circuit could be combined with optics, certain sapphires or rubies (gain medium) and others to craft lasers which either relied upon the sun's power or some other energy source.

Diamonds are a naturally and have so many uses it's ridiculous, they're thermal conductivity and optical properties are great. Using diamond powdered tools like saws to cut massive stones could be achieved like how we theorize the Egyptians cut stones using sand and saws. Acids also provide a whole world or creative alternatives to metallurgy.

Ceramics are another versatile inorganic nonmetallic material. Bricks are ceramics. We can make firearms and knives using ceramics. Tank armors designed to withstand anti-tank missiles are also made using specialized ceramics. Bladed weapons could be forged from multiple materials at once using different properties to achieve near metal results. The Japanese use different soft and hard steels to forge a single katana so that the advantages of one cancel out the disadvantages of the other. Why not use a combination of ceramics, obsidian, glass and wood or bone to achieve similar results.

Explosives are and can be used and created without metallurgy. This can be used for both shaping the earth and as a weapon.

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    $\begingroup$ Raising some good points here and although I don't agree with the strength of spider silk being that strong in the general sense (there's different ways such strength is measured, silk might be strong when you pull it but I think I've read it's quite easy to cut in certain ways - metals on the other hand are more "linear" in the way they behave at a human scale). The point on iron being trapped in the biocycle is good, but you have to explain the abundance of iron in that cycle without it being relatively abundant in nature (my answer attempts this a bit). Overall, pretty good, +1. $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Oct 4 '14 at 14:23
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    $\begingroup$ Why are you editing with a different account? $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Oct 4 '14 at 18:52
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The limiting factor on building height if you don't have metal is not structural strength. Ancient Roman apartment blocks could reach heights of 10 stories; 12th-century Italian towers could go as high as 30. These buildings were made using a mix of stone and wood -- the first iron-framed structures didn't appear until around 1800.

The limiting factor is access to the upper stories. Without metal, you can't (easily) have powered elevators, and stairs are only practical for six floors or so.

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Many of the other answers already cover most of what I wanted to say, but there's a few points I wanted to add here.

The first would depend on your definition of "no metals" would be. Imagine a world where metals of any sort were extremely rare, life as we know it would be completely different assuming it could still function on the scale that we know. First is that our entire planet would likely behave differently since its magnetic field would either be missing or weak.
However what if we instead said that metal exists, but aside from going very deep, it only exists in tiny amounts. That way we could account for the metals needed to sustain life, as well as other important factors that keep our planet in check. There are many areas around the world where metal just doesn't exist in abundance near the surface that you could model off of.

One interesting twist would be to have a rather abundant sources of a couple different metals that we would consider rare. For example, having just gold means you could eventually have computers however it wouldn't be nearly strong enough to work as armor or weapons. Without effective metals to sink heat, computer would also then be limited to their overall heat output so high-powered applications are out of the picture. There would also be no magnets due to the lack of iron, so things such as a motor are out of the picture.

Another thing is concrete. You don't need metals to work concrete, and it technically doesn't need reinforcement. The Romans even found that by adding volcanic ash to their mixture, their concrete stands up to the erosion of water fairly well. Of course, without reinforcements the concrete will have some major issues to contend with. First thing is that concrete will completely fail when bending, making tall structure at a high risk to high winds and possible earth quakes. It will also take a lot more concrete to make a given structure stable. Pillars have to be large and wide to make up for the lack of metal reinforcements, and according to this article it would have to be about 5 times larger to be around as effective as concrete with steel reinforcements, but would still be susceptible to the bending issue.

Also let's not forget the potential for rubber, as it technically derives from a tree. It can also be processed without the use of metals. The weak side to this is that you would specifically need a climate which could support the growth of rubber trees, assuming the changes in available metals still allows the evolutionary process that would produce rubber trees. However rubber has many great uses that would aid in this society, but it wouldn't necessary replace any of the uses of metal.

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Harry Harrison explored related themes in his West of Eden http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_of_Eden series in which the 'dinosaur killer' never struck and dinosaurs went on to evolve an advanced civilization built on bio-technologies up to and including boats, submarines, projectile weapons, and remote sensing systems based on bio-engineered lifeforms.

On a separate point: none of the answers given so far mention stone age developments in aerodynamics. The boomerangs used by Australian aboriginals come in a whole range of purpose-built forms for recreation, hunting and warfare are strictly a sticks/stones/fire technology. Yet, all embody sophisticated appreciation of the properties of aerofoil surfaces, and the consequences of displacing the centre of dynamic load from the centre of mass of those aerofoils to get the desired characteristics for control of dynamic behaviour e.g. a hunting boomerang used against kangaroos is not intended to return to the thrower while one for hunting birds should return if the target is missed.

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Consider the societies of the late stone age in the real world. Neolithic farming societies had access to many inventions and discoveries that we don't generally think of as "stone age":

  • cities
  • pottery
  • wheels
  • farming
  • woven cloth
  • writing
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You can look at the old societies pre 3500-1200BC to get a pretty good idea of what they could and could not do without metal.

If metallurgy was replaceable by magic on earth a vast majority of people would choose to use magic. If they themselves could not use magic but a shaman could then they could pay/barter with him to do whatever it is they want.

Buildings could get at least as high as our modern barns for area that need a lot of interior space and a somewhat higher if you are just going for a tower. However, it would have to be a lot harder to construct very large or tall building without the use of metal.

I think in general though this world would be pretty intertwined with the magic or with nature or both. Those societies would probably have a low population concentration and have to live in spread out communities with low roof buildings. They would only be able to use rudimentary farming methods to make food for themselves.

If you want to have a large population of these people they would probably have to be nomadic and sort of travel around eat everything in one spot then leave it for some years before it all grows back.

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Raymond E Feist's Magician had a concept similar to this if you want to read it in which an alien race known as the Tsurani (whom had tech levels similar to the Romans but with access to Magic) come from a world with very little metal. Mostly they use a special wood which when treated with a resin makes the object very hard (they use it both for armour, swords and pottery etc.) It's been quite a while since I've read this book but I'm pretty sure the second section of it goes into detail about their planet and how he has decided they constructed buildings etc.

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  • $\begingroup$ Feist's "Empire" trilogy is set primarily in the Tsurani homeworld. It goes into much more detail on their culture and technology and covers a timeframe of just before the Riftwar begins and how the relationship between the two worlds develops. $\endgroup$ – Michael Richardson Sep 14 '16 at 13:31
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Another problem for a world without iron is it would lack protective magnetic field. Magnetic field is created by iron-nickel earth core (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inner_core ) which creates magnetic field: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earth%27s_magnetic_field. It is extremely important for life: "dissipation of the magnetic field of Mars caused a near-total loss of its atmosphere". Main star's radiation would fry any life on such world. Life on a planet without abundant iron would have to deal with violent, DNA-damaging radiation. So it is about impossible.

Further reading: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_catastrophe - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnetosphere

Your main problem in such world lacking iron is not having metal for tools: it is how to protect DNA of carbon-based life against radiation. Higher forms of life will have hard time developing because small forms (bacteria) are very hard to protect because they have small volume/surface ratio. The smaller the organism is, the harder it is to protect it from environment.

Physics. It just works. It is not opinion and not optional.

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  • $\begingroup$ I actually doubt that radiation would be limiting factor for life if the planet was large enough to retain water. Life likely starts deep under the ocean where it is shielded. Life forms can adapt to very high levels of radiation by ramping up their anti-oxidant production e.g. there are microbes and fungus that live inside nuclear reactors. They might even be able to use it for an energy source. Earth life is susceptible to radiation because the earth is shielded and therefore no earth life has to evolve radiation protections. On a low iron world that would not be the case. $\endgroup$ – TechZen Oct 10 '14 at 2:13
  • $\begingroup$ You are right, TechZen. On low-iron world life would be possible only in water, where it is shielded from radiation. So for them, water surface would be "end of atmosphere". So alien boats would be coming from nowhere and floating on the edge of the livable world. To leave it and travel on the surface, intelligent life need to travel in little aquariums on wheels. Which they will need to invent late (because in they native underwater world, they could just swim in 3D). Interesting world. With no metallurgy, and only using technologies which can be used underwater. $\endgroup$ – Peter M. Oct 10 '14 at 14:18
  • $\begingroup$ Or it could just be that surface deposits of Iron are extremely rare and are concentrated at lower levels. In medieval times they where only ever really able to go to 60m depths (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mining_in_the_Upper_Harz) so anything lower than that means a world where there is enough for the magnetic field but it won't be used by the inhabitants $\endgroup$ – IrateDwarf Sep 7 '16 at 14:30

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