The answer probably isn't Rutherfordium...
January 10, 2011 3:49 AM   Subscribe

What element has had the greatest effect on human development, and consequently would have been the greatest hindrance if there hadn't have been any handy deposits of it?

The obvious answer to this is carbon or oxygen, since without those we wouldn't exist. That's not what I mean.

Assume that the planet existed in its non-molested state up until the point where we started being 'clever' animals. We've become human like and mastered attaching stones to bits of wood to stab, slash and hack. We're at the wooden tools stage of minecraft, if you want.

There's enough of everything that makes up our bodies and our environment that we can exist.

What thing that we have dug out of the ground, or heated until it changed state was our history most dependant upon?

[ My first thought was iron, since it was a relatively easy find which has lasted so long - but I guess we could have done quite a bit with bronze. My second thought was the vast carbon (as hyrdocarbon) deposits, but we got quite a long way without them and probably would have just stripped more woodland without it. ]

Anyone any thoughts?
posted by sodium lights the horizon to Science & Nature (36 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

The use of salt to preserve food leads to the ability to store food, to travel longer distances, to discover other groups of humans. Trading salt lead to commerce. Using salt lead to medicine. Salt was a key component in early pottery (and early art). Salt was a key component in a lot of early religious rituals.

I suppose you might not count NACL as a "pure" element, but it's one of the most important things we ever learned to extract from the world around us.
posted by BZArcher at 4:07 AM on January 10, 2011 [12 favorites]

My first thought wasn't an element as much as a compound: Alumin(i)um Silicate, the major ingredient in clay. Without clay you don't get pottery or (later) brick. But then, if you think about it a bit more, the lack of such a common substance would have profoundly affected the development of life in the first place, and humans are unlikely to have evolved.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 4:12 AM on January 10, 2011

Eponysterical. Because BZArcher is correct about the value of NaCl. Also remember that our (healthy) kidneys retain sodium and dump of these elements was traditionally rare and precious to us physiologically.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 4:19 AM on January 10, 2011

Response by poster: Yeah, I was probably wrong to limit this to elements. Molecules? Substances?

An identifiable blob of stuff.

le morte de bea arthur - I'm thinking that this hypothetical situation has enough of whatever 'thing' to get life to the stone age state. So anything our environment is using to sustain life is there is the quantities needed. It's the access to deposits by humans that I'm more meaning.
posted by sodium lights the horizon at 4:20 AM on January 10, 2011

Salt is an interesting one, although there are other ways of preserving food such as smoking or drying.

Clay is also undoubtably important, although again less effective substitutes can be found such as wood for bowls. Brick is not essential either - very complicated structures can be built with a variety of material from timber to ice to roughly hewn blocks of stone.

My suggestion, flint for fire making, is not without viable substitutes either.

I'm not sure there is anything that is absolutely essential, as this would have precluded societies emerging in regions of the world where this substance did not exist.
posted by MighstAllCruckingFighty at 4:20 AM on January 10, 2011

The question is kind of impossibly broad without an identifiable metric, but I'll venture a guess and say: wood.

- Its been used in houses for millennia, in almost every climate
- Tool handles
- Fuel for fires

(The real answer, of course, is vespene gas, without which it is impossible to build Battlecruisers).
posted by DWRoelands at 4:30 AM on January 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

I suppose you might not count NACL as a "pure" element, but it's one of the most important things we ever learned to extract from the world around us.
Sodium ions in salt are essential to how nerves and brain cells work, but we can get those from eating other biological substances (like any other animals).

Anyway the problem with "which elements are needed" is that the Human body uses a LOT of different elements. Not just carbon, oxygen and hydrogen but stuff like Arisinic and phosphorus and iron of course. And calcium. Actually there's a list here, which lists:

Oxygen, Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Calcium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Sulfur, Sodium, Magnesium, Copper, Zinc, Selenium, Molybdenum, Fluorine, Chlorine, Iodine, Manganese, Cobalt, Iron, Lithium, Strontium, Aluminum, Silicon, Lead, Vanadium, Arsenic, and Bromine
posted by delmoi at 4:31 AM on January 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is a interesting question (although maybe by accepting 'blobs of stuff' it becomes a bit general).

Clay is very important because it supported the emergence of writing (clay tablets), etc.

As for elements, gold has had a huge effect on the structuring of societies, not necessarily in terms of absolute utility, but definitely in terms of social and cultural meaning, and the way it has affected human behaviour.
posted by carter at 4:35 AM on January 10, 2011

Coal? Without an abundant and easy to access supply of coal, there's no industrial revolution, and we may still be living in castles and riding horses around.
posted by Grither at 4:39 AM on January 10, 2011

Right there, you have pretty much every element that we use for anything. No Gold or Silver, but we do have the main component of Bronze, which is Copper (mixed with Tin). Clay is Aluminum Silicate, so that's covered. Flint is a type of Quartz which is in turn made out of Silicon and Oxygen.

I think we have everything we need in that list to get up to pre-industrial technology.
posted by delmoi at 4:40 AM on January 10, 2011

Why not gold? Without a metal rare enough to be valuable, and yet common enough to use as money, our economic systems would certainly be entirely different.
posted by steambadger at 4:47 AM on January 10, 2011

Water is best.
posted by Segundus at 4:53 AM on January 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

"... There's enough of everything that makes up our bodies and our environment that we can exist. ..."

In his 1997 book Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond argues that you've actually stated the problem with your question, and why its answer, as you've asked it, is probably mu. Diamond argues that it is not enough for a society to merely "exist," to progress much past the isolated "stone age" societies and groups found in New Guinea in the mid-20th century. In order to even get to mining operations, societies have to get beyond human powered subsistence, which was done only in Eurasia and parts of Central America, through domestication of plants and suitable animals. Without the intermediate steps of agriculture, and animal husbandry, humans elsewhere never got far enough ahead of basic hunter/gatherer existence to do much digging. And he argues that being able to develop agriculture was mainly a matter of luck and happenstance of location, of humans crossing paths with the handful of domestic plant species, and 13 or 14 suitable animal species, upon which all modern large scale agriculture still depends, in climates where temperature, rain and growing seasons provided steady returns on early experiments with building a stable, static existence, based on agriculture as a higher content and quality of food supply.

He makes the point that industrialization took a long time, even in Eurasia, in terms of developing metallurgy, and harnessing fossil fuels to do so (the two being intertwined it turns out, because to make advanced metal alloys like steel, you have to get to high temperature refining and smelting, which is only possible with coke). He speculates that the 5,000 to 10,000 years between the probable first successes with agriculture, and the beginning of the Bronze Age, were spent by Eurasian settlers simply building up a population and trade society, on top of agriculture, which had, in toto, enough spare capital to support difficult ventures like mining and long distance trade, that led to bronze, and to military/governmental organization, on a large scale, which has ultimately determined the fate of all other indigenous cultures.

But a lot of people are critical of Diamond's theories, as well. Personally, I think his arguments make more sense than imagining minecraft style human history, but you're welcome to imagine alternatives, if you like, I guess.
posted by paulsc at 5:05 AM on January 10, 2011 [8 favorites]

Someone once said it would be impossible for an aquatic civilisation to develop, because being underwater means no fire. There's also a theory that the discovery of cooking was intimately tied to the development of larger brains.

So I'm going to go with the constituents of fire - dioxygen and carbon, both in the form of plant life and coal/oil.
posted by Leon at 5:07 AM on January 10, 2011

I think the problem with a lot of these answers is that if we didn't have element "X" we couldn't exist. But I think that's a false assumption, without "X" we may have evolved differently than we have.

I'm going to go with Glass. That is, a solid, transparent substance at room temperature.

Optics are integral to so much technology and basic transportation I can't imagine what we would do without it.

No lightbulbs, no electronic information displays, no windows for vehicles, no cameras, no lasers...

Very little progress in the world happens without glass. Or it happens very, very differntly and much much more slowly.

Perhaps transparent plastics are discovered sooner? But perhaps they're not discovered at all without glass!
posted by j03 at 5:14 AM on January 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Where would we be without fossil fuels? If the spigot were turned off right now, we'd be up the creek without a paddle.
posted by brownrd at 5:27 AM on January 10, 2011

Tin and copper are needed to make bronze. Tin is rarer, and lack of availability meant a shortage of bronze. So in desperation people turned to iron as a substitute, which is a generally worse alternative to bronze. However, that led to the discovery of steel, which is generally a better alternative to bronze.

So without tin, you could have different scenarios:

1. No bronze, no serious metallurgy, iron and steel never get discovered, stone age lasts forever.

2. Iron is used instead, steel discovered earlier.

Alternatively, there's a suggestion that the scarcity of copper and tin led to the development of trade, since a community with copper needed to trade with a community with tin so that they could both benefit.

So, you could have a scenario where there's a lot more tin and copper around, so civilization never develops because there's no need to trade for it.

If you widen the definition of things that you dig out of the ground, the first domesticated plant was the gourd: it was very useful for wandering humans to carry water in.

It's also been argued that the most important early human invention was the needle, made from bone or horn. Once you have the needle you can have fitted clothing and can comfortably survive in climates that are cold part of the year.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 5:38 AM on January 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ammonia, as fertilizer.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:38 AM on January 10, 2011

Seconding delmoi. Silicon itself. Without silicon, very few rocks worth working into tools. Without silicon, no flint for making fire. Without silicon, no clay for pottery and bricks and writing tablets. Without silicon, no glass. Without silicon, no electronics or computers..
posted by Ahab at 5:52 AM on January 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Without coal, we never would have been able to forge iron or bronze.
posted by Gilbert at 5:58 AM on January 10, 2011

Fire let us cook food so we could focus more energy on brain development than on digesting food. Sweat (which is mostly water) let us run game down and/or run away from dangers. The search for water, since it was all bound up in the ice caps, created a desert that forced us north or south, and in turn drove the development of languages, boats, and the like due to the large migrations. Then it was the presence of water that developed cities, because agriculture was necessary for that step and plants need water. Finally commerce and trade developed between those cities, for whatever you can imagine really, but behind it all was the water to feed animals and people that made all that trade possible.

So depending on how you tackle it, we could either say hydrogen (since there is twice as much in water than oxygen by number), or oxygen if by weight (15 times heaver than hydrogen). But those are dependencies and your talking about actually pulling stuff out of the ground, or making it from that stuff. In that case I'd have to go for glucose, since the above is nearly all a search for the raw ingredients our bodies can turn into something that does one simple thing: glucose powers all that brain power that made them possible, and nearly everything we've done has been to get our hands on it more easily.
posted by jwells at 6:17 AM on January 10, 2011

I recall an article from Discover magazine back in the mid-'90s that postulated that the answer was iron. The focus of the article was on searches for extraterrestrial intelligence. The basic idea was that it was easy to envision a planet in which the vast bulk of the planet's iron ore deposits are locked deep inside the Earth's mantle, rather than in the crust as they are on Earth. An alien intelligence developing on such a planet would then have a lot of trouble progressing past a late-medieval level of technology, and would effectively be "invisible" to SETI investigators. It's therefore easy (by this article's logic) to envision an alternate history in which (a) sentient life has evolved normally but (b) history has proceeded significantly differently due to the natural resources that are available.

I've dug a little through the Discover archives trying to find this article, but have not managed to do so so far. I'll let you know if I find it.
posted by Johnny Assay at 6:49 AM on January 10, 2011

uh.... elements. That does not include salt, fertilizer, etc.

I vote iron. (Fe... element.)
posted by FauxScot at 7:08 AM on January 10, 2011

posted by Good Brain at 7:40 AM on January 10, 2011

Seconding delmoi. The human body depends a great deal on various minerals. Not only that, but it depends on specific environmental amounts of these minerals—too much can be just as bad as too little.

I think the question is almost meaningless. A different balance of minerals (at least the first 30 or so) could very easily have had profound effects on evolution, and in that case the question of how it would impact the progression of human society becomes very much moot.
posted by dephlogisticated at 7:59 AM on January 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

The article I mentioned above is "Is This the E.T. to Whom I Am Speaking?", by Richard Teske, from the May 1993 issue of Discover. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find a copy online.
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:08 AM on January 10, 2011

There's a reason why copper is the first metal used in history, so far as we know.

1. Its ores are brightly colored, blue or green.
2. When the ore is ground up and tossed onto a fire, it makes the flame change color, so it would have been a favorite trick of shamans trying to impress the crowd.
3. Copper can be reduced to metal by a wood fire.
4. It's brightly colored and attractive when in metallic form. People would have found it the next morning after the shaman's tricks, and figured out what happened.
5. It's ductile; it can be worked cold.
6. It's soft enough to be workable but hard enough to be useful once in final form.

And once it became common, then people would start wondering what would happen if they put other unusually-colored ores into fire, which eventually leads them to iron, and to metallurgy in general.

So I vote for copper.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:43 AM on January 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Without coal, we never would have been able to forge iron or bronze.

This is not quite true; you can get enough heat out of a well-stoked charcoal fire, one fed using bellows or some other forced-draft device, to smelt iron. I have actually done it myself (using hardwood charcoal and a vacuum cleaner). You can certainly forge iron at lower temperatures, over an open charcoal hearth, as many blacksmiths can attest to.

What you cannot do with charcoal, I don't think, is make steel. That requires coal, which you make into coke, and which serves both as a fuel source and a supply of carbon (depending on how you're making steel).

Although it's entirely possible that in the absence of coal/coke, maybe you can get the same amount of heat out of charcoal, with different furnace designs. I think the problem is just that you'd run out of wood. If we tried to run the industrial revolution -- by which I mean the steam-driven iron-to-steel transitional period of the 18th and 19th centuries -- on wood instead of coal, I think we'd have deforested the planet many times over by now.

So not to get too Sid Meyer about it, but I think the answer to the question depends on what level of civilization you want to get to. There are a varieties of metals that I think could have blocked large-scale, high-population-density modern civilization from forming in its current form, but there are alternative examples of civilization in resource-poor areas that make it clear that survival as a species doesn't require much, relatively speaking.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:18 AM on January 10, 2011

Expanding on segundus, if we take your broader definition of "blobs of stuff" and understand the critical juncture as being finding and achieving mastery and control over a naturally occurring substance--transforming it from its non-molested state into something that works for us, then I think water is key--first the ability to store and transport water, then the ability to use it for irrigation, then the ability to use it for transportation and navigation, to harness its energy (simple water power, steam power, etc.)
posted by SomeTrickPony at 9:46 AM on January 10, 2011

Hydrogen. No hydrogen, no water. No water, no life.

All other answers flow from this.
posted by dfriedman at 9:52 AM on January 10, 2011

Response by poster: Well now, this hasn't gone in the direction I intended (my fault for phrasing the question really badly, I think) but I'm loving the answers.
posted by sodium lights the horizon at 10:10 AM on January 10, 2011

If we're opening this up to any mineral (i.e. not just an element but a natural resource) - obsidian. It would have been hard to get from the "wood tools" stage to the "stone tools" stage without obsidian. It would have been really hard to ever invent the blade without it, for instance.
posted by Sara C. at 10:24 AM on January 10, 2011

What you cannot do with charcoal, I don't think, is make steel.

What you cannot do is melt steel. They started making steel hundreds of years before coal started being used as a fuel.

The way you do it is to take thin iron bars and build a stack alternating charcoal and iron. You heat it up using a wood or charcoal fire, and carbon from the charcoal penetrates the surface of the iron and makes steel.

When the process is complete, you have iron bars with a coating of steel. You can beat them to break the steel loose, and then work the steel together to create weapons -- which is how Damascus Steel Swords were made, more or less. The process was pretty well understood and quite a lot of steel was created before anyone figured out how to melt the stuff.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:35 PM on January 10, 2011

Well, it is a really broad question. I mean, with out any of the more common elements things would be radically different. I think it is more interesting to think of more compound substances. With out flint, for example making fire would be harder. How would that change things? Maybe not so much as there are other ways of getting fire.

One thing I was thinking about is wood. Imagine a world with out any vegetation much thicker then reeds... You still could have fire but it would not be very long lasting. You would have to have a big stack of dried vegetation just sitting around to feed it. Also, how would tools be? You would still have stone tools held in the hand but no axes or spears or arrows. Tough to make structures. All this fails to even consider how animals would have developed with out trees to live in. Would we have arms at all?
posted by d4nj450n at 2:49 PM on January 10, 2011

I don't think there's enough information to answer this question. To find out the answer, you'd want to re-run humanity as an experiment several times to see how different elemental scarcities affected the development of technology. That experiment has not been performed.
posted by Protocols of the Elders of Sockpuppetry at 3:28 PM on January 10, 2011

Hydrogen. No hydrogen, no water. No water, no life.

That should be: Hydrogen. No hydrogen, no sun. No sun, no life.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 5:12 PM on January 10, 2011

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