The Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age

~~ Paul V. Hartman ~~

      One of the markers of historical progress has been the ability of a people or culture to work metal and its alloys. Primitive peoples used hard things to cut and slice and to tip their arrows, the most suitable materials being stone (typically, flint) and animal bone. Prior to the discovery that metals would serve better, such cultures are typically divided into Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic, for "old stone", "middle stone", and "new stone" ages.

In the Paleolithic, which seems to be go back at least two and a half million years, stone tools used were, first, those found which had a reasonable cutting edge, and, later, those which could be chipped into such a state. Flint lends itself admirably to this purpose, and is why most stone age tools found are of this material. Flint is a hard mineral, a form of quartz with very tiny pores. It is easily worked or shaped by virtue of its even grain, and when flint is struck with another hard rock, produces smooth, curved chips. (Later, another attribute of flint would prove to be of equal value: when struck against iron it produces a spark - a portable source of fire.)

About 8,000 BC, the human species began to include crop growing as a feature of the food supply in addition to hunting. Those peoples who worked stone to make tools specialized for farming are said to have entered the Neolithic Age, while those peoples after 8,000 BC who remained dependent on hunting are said to occupy the Mesolithic. The Mesolithic is well studied in Britain. A culture known as the Maglemosian descended from people from Denmark who walked across the land that would become the North Sea before ice melted at the end of the last ice age to form the English Channel.

These people used tiny flints mounted (with resin) in wood shafts to make composite tools such as saws or knives. They paddled canoes made of cored-out tree trunks. They wore antler headdresses in a form of ritual dance. They may have corralled deer. Some calculations imply that in 7500 BC, the Mesolithic population of Britain was about 10,000, consisting of breeding groups of some 25 individuals living approximately 200 miles from each other, either as hunting societies inland or hunting and fishing societies along the coasts.

The Neolithic included several distinctive features. Land was opened for planting by either burning or chopping. Pottery was made. Groups traded implements with others. Roads were cut. Houses were built of mud brick in warm climates, timber in forested cooler ones. About 3,500 BC tribal leaders were able to encourage their people to erect ritual structures - stone monuments (Stone Henge is best known), burial chambers, or communal houses of larger size. Protective palisades or walls appear.

Clearly, for different parts of the world, people adapted to farming at different times. When Europeans discovered Australia, they found natives who had remained in an Old Stone Age culture, whereas African Bushmen were in the Mesolithic, and American Indians were in the Neolithic.

Copper is a soft metal which can be found in its natural state as well as within ore, and could be beaten into ornaments and soft weapons. It appears on the world stage about 8,000 BC in the Tigris and Euphrates region where civilization and agriculture were beginning. Later it appears in Egypt and among the Chinese and the Inca in Peru. About 5,000 BC pottery appears, and about this time copper is melted out of its ore. The link with pottery seems to be this: an open fire, such as a hearth, is not hot enough to heat copper ore to the point where the metal runs free, but an enclosed space such as was being used to fire pottery does reach that temperature. Some observant person noticed that the green ore inside such a kiln yielded copper.

It was also about 5,000 that gold was discovered and beaten into decorative objects.

About 3500 BC, someone discovered that copper may be made harder by melting it together with tin, which formed bronze. This was the intellectual step, and therefore when a people made the jump to bronze, they had made a significant cultural leap. Thus: the Bronze Age, which appeared at various times among various peoples. (A later discovery, c900 BC, was to combine copper with zinc instead of tin, to produce a gold-appearing metal called brass.)

About 1500 BC another step was taken in the Mediterranean, perhaps first in Asia Minor (modern Turkey, then populated by a people called the Hittites) which was to derive an even harder metal, called iron, from its ore. The technological leap was the higher heat source needed for iron, whereas the advantage was that iron ore was abundant and widespread and therefore cheap. To derive iron from ore, it was necessary to heat the ore in combination with charcoal to high temperatures for several hours, the charcoal capturing released oxygen and the ore thus releasing a shiny metal.

Then this metal had to be freed of its remaining brittle impurities by reheating, pounding, and reheating - the more the better. Heating alone will not do it; the removal of oxygen from the ore is an essential step, and one must wonder how the first person thought of it, or recognized it, if the combination was serendipitous! Over the next 500 years this new discovery would spread over much of Asia and Europe and penetrate Africa. Yet Caesar would conquer Britain (54 BC) before the Scandinavian countries would discover iron working, and it would not be discovered at all by native peoples in the Western Hemisphere.

We typically define "civilization" as that point at which a primitive people learn that the food supply can be made more reliable by domestication of crops and animals, at which point two other things happen. The first is the realization that the people need no longer be nomads - constantly moving from place to place, hunting and gathering - but can remain in one place. The second is to discover that with domestication, not all of the people are necessary to provide food. Some can be allowed other tasks, and thus, an artisan class can emerge.

A division of labor in a fixed location is the evidence for "civilization", and it begins where crops grow most abundantly - in the fertile valleys of rivers such as the Tigris and Euphrates.

The hunter/gatherers of the Old Stone Age were uncivilized, those of the Neolithic, civilized. As metal working progresses, we assign new titles for technological achievement: the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age, coming at different times to different peoples and to a few, never.

Now into a new century and a new millennium, we have added many new composite materials to our "tool kit" to replace customary metals in many applications. We have passed through several other "ages" - such as the Industrial Age, the Steam Age, the age of the combustion engine, and the Plastic age, among others, but the pace of all of this has increased as well and we now find ourselves in a combination of "ages": the Space Age, the Nuclear Age, the Cybernetic Age. What "ages" are yet to be added to the historical drama of Man - The Intergalactic Age? The Time Travel Age? One can only guess, but we can be reasonably sure that all of the future ages will be preceded by the same event that has launched all the others:

someone makes an interesting discovery...

There is no assignment of a "Brass Age", even though it is an intellectual discovery (though it might have been accidental), as it came after the discovery of iron, a much greater intellectual step (higher temperature; use charcoal; beat and fold, etc). I think the first person to discover brass must have held the metal up and said "this will make an excellent door hinge." His name was Stanley.

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