History

What (and when) was the Iron Age?

Human history can be defined by three distinct time periods: The Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. The Iron Age is the last of the three ages and encompasses nearly everything we know about human history. So, when was the Iron Age, and what happened during that period?

Defining the ages

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The ages of human history are named based on the primary building material used by people at the time. During the Stone Age, people relied on stone to make tools and weapons. Humans transitioned into the Bronze age when they learned how to smelt metal, a process that extracts metal from its ore by heating and melting it. This allowed them to craft bronze tools and weapons.

When humans achieved the ability to smelt iron, which requires much higher temperatures than bronze, they entered into the Iron Age. Iron is also more abundant than the copper and tin required to make bronze, which allowed humans in the Iron Age to mass produce metal items for the first time in history.

When was the Iron Age?

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Middle Eastern civilizations were the first to reach the Iron Age in around 1,000 B.C. The Iron Age spread outward, either by transfer of information or by independent discovery, until it reached Western Europe and East Asia by 500 B.C. and Southern Africa by the year 0.

Every civilization moved at its own pace, which means that the Iron Age technically can’t be an exact period of time worldwide. For example, in North America, the Inca was the only civilization to reach the Bronze Age, while all other native civilizations remained in the Stone Age until European explorers (who had been firmly in the Iron Age for centuries) arrived.

Officially, we are still in the Iron Age. Steel, which is made with iron, is still the primary building material of modern society. The Iron Age will continue until we find something better than steel.

Early Iron Age

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It’s difficult for researchers to know exactly what happened at the start of the Iron Age, but they do know that it was immediately followed by a period of war, famine, and the collapse of several major civilizations. Many researchers believe that this was because of the availability of iron.

Although bronze and iron have similar strengths, the materials required to make bronze are more rare than iron. That means that during the Bronze Age, only the wealthy had access to metal weapons. At the start of the Iron Age, iron was so plentiful that even the common folk could use it. It was the first time since the Stone Age that the masses had arms that could compete with the ruling class, leading to many revolutions and movements for the next thousand years.

Civilizations that arrived at the Iron Age first weren’t always eager to share the new information with their neighbors. Instead, the new technology was commonly spread in a less peaceful manner. With their stronger weapons, Iron Age civilizations could easily conquer Bronze and Stone Age settlements. After the pillaging was over, the survivors of the attack would find iron equipment that was left behind and use it to bring themselves into the Iron Age as well.

Permanent settlements

Even though there were many permanent settlements during the Bronze Age, the Iron Age made living in large communities easier. Since iron tools were much stronger and more readily available, farmers could grow crops in even the toughest soil conditions. Iron sickles and ploughs also made agriculture more efficient. Farmers could grow more crops with the same amount of effort. Sustaining large permanent settlements was no longer an issue.

Because food was more accessible than ever, the Iron Age brought with it a population boom.

Rise of empires

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By 500 B.C., most civilizations in Europe had reached the Iron Age, but some had learned that if they mixed carbon with iron during the smelting process, it makes a substance much stronger than regular iron. That substance is called steel.

The Persians were one of the first civilizations to utilize steel for their weapons and armor. With steel being much stronger than iron, bronze, or stone weapons, the Persian armies easily conquered their way across much of Europe and Asia, creating one of the largest empires in history.

Mechanization

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The Iron Age reached its next milestone at end of the 19th century with the Industrial Revolution. Electricity and new manufacturing processes allowed the mass production of inexpensive iron and steel. Railroads and skyscrapers were appearing in cities all over the industrialized world.

Today, the Iron Age continues as artificial intelligence controls automated assembly lines to make iron and steel even more accessible for use in everyday products.