Pre-Columbian Cotton Armor: Better than Steel
According to author Jared Diamond, the Spanish conquered the Aztecs and Incas during the 1500’s with guns, germs, and steel. At first blush, his conclusion seems undeniable. But I’m actually not so sure about the steel, at least as it relates to armor. If steel gave the Spanish such an advantage, why did so many conquistadors abandon their European breastplates in favor of Aztec and Inca cotton armor?
By the time of the Americas’ conquest, European technology had focused for centuries on making things hard. The Europeans were masters of metal church bells, for instance, which gave them an edge over other Eurasians when it came to casting cannons. The Europeans also built sturdy, inflexible ships of wood, and they were masters at stone-craft, particularly at compressing stones into that central feature of so much European architecture and engineering: the arch. The Pre-Columbian civilizations, on the other hand, and particularly the Incas, had focused on the technology of tension: on creating tight weaves of threads and reeds and other flexible strands. In other words, the natives were masters of fabric. The Incas built boats of reeds almost as long as Columbus’ ships: flexible, hardy vessels that carried twenty sailors and could travel hundreds of miles from shore. And instead of using stone arches or wood for bridges, the Incas used vegetable fiber cables and pioneered the suspension bridge.
And of course, the Pre-Columbian civilizations made armor. Both the Aztecs and Incas sandwiched cotton between layers of cloth and leather and stitched the whole thing together, creating quilted vests and body suits. This cotton armor was very dense and could be two fingers thick, and it repelled arrows and spears almost as well as a Spanish steel breastplate. Plus, cotton armor was much lighter, cooler, and more flexible, which probably erased the breastplate’s advantage in toughness. That’s why so many conquistadors fought in native armor.
I don’t actually mean that steel had no advantages in the battle for the Americas. The Spanish offensive weapons — swords, lances, crossbows, etc. — killed more effectively than the natives’ wood and stone swords, spears, bows, and clubs (though the difference wasn’t as great as you might think). But steel’s advantage apparently wasn’t enough to overcome the advances of Pre-Columbian fabric tech.
It’s interesting to imagine what the world might look like if the Inca and Aztec civilizations had survived and continued to develop fabric technology. Would we have fewer traffic jams and parking nightmares thanks to bendable, squeezable cars? Could we roll our laptops into scrolls for easier transport? Would we all live in earthquake-safe, tornado-resistant homes that simply jiggle with tremors and bend in the wind? Maybe, at the very least, our soldiers and police would wear lightweight, bullet-proof underwear.
If you want to learn more about fabric armor — in the Old World, which actually wasn’t totally ignorant of fabric tech — check out these great blog-posts by Heather Pringle: (1) Cloth, a Body Armor of Choice?; and (b) Replicating the Armor of Alexander the Great.
- Guns, Germs, & Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Diamond (1999)
- 1491, New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, by Charles Mann (2005). Note that many historians question a fundamental plank of Mann’s thesis: the enormity of the Pre-Columbian population.
- Aztec Warfare, Imperial Expansion and Political Control, by Ross Hassig (1995).
- The Incas, by Terrance D’Altroy (2003).
© 2011, 2015 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.