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Pre-Columbian Cotton Armor: Better than Steel

August 10, 2011

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?

Native Mexicans vs. conquistadors (facsimile of a mid-1500’s illustration).

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.

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Notes:

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.

SOURCES:

© 2011, 2015 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. August 12, 2011 9:24 am

    Thanks for such a fascinating jumping off point – had no idea about the widespread applicability of tensile strength (I think of that only in relation to bridges)

    Question; Is that a maori warrior in the image at the top of your blog? Interested in the inspiration that caused you to choose him.

    • August 12, 2011 5:27 pm

      David, good eye! That is a Maori warrior. As for the inspiration, a lot of it was legal, frankly. I wanted to give the developers paintings of historic figures in the public domain, and that Maori comes from the 1800’s, so the copyright has expired. I had gotten attached to the European queen on the right side of the header (Maria Theresa, the Holy Roman Empress of the mid-1700’s), and I wanted the other pint-holder to come from a culture far from Europe in terms of both geography and style. I originally looked for Mesoamerican candidates, but that Maori just leapt out at me.

  2. jeremy permalink
    March 14, 2013 11:50 am

    HOW IS COTTON GOOD ARMOR

    • Marisol permalink
      June 1, 2014 6:18 pm

      Clearly you do not know how to read, but somehow you can write obnoxious comments

  3. Des permalink
    May 13, 2014 1:37 pm

    It probably wasn’t a revelation to the Europeans; quilted/layered linen doublets were common currency from the high middle ages, with or without metal armour. Modern testing suggests they would have offered meaningful protection, a bladed blow of >80j required to make a full penetration (sword impacts range from 60-130j.)

    What’s probably also worth noting is that for a fair number of the conquistadors it wasn’t a matter of setting aside metal armour in favour of cotton; rather cotton was simple what was available in the New World for those who’d turned up without…

  4. damien permalink
    May 25, 2014 2:19 pm

    What evidence do you have that cotton armour was as effective as metal?

    Quilted fabric armor was pretty common in most parts of the world, but quickly replaced with bone, leather, wood, metal and other materials where possible.

    I get your softness vs hardness angle, but Im not buying it that softness comes close to being as effective as hardness as a way of enabling technological progression.

    In addition, you use western ships as an example of “hardness”, when in fact they are designed to flex and twist rather than break, so in fact, a controlled amount of softness is being used.

  5. May 25, 2014 4:33 pm

    ii believe that in the conditions cotton or fabric armor would fare bettter than carrying a heavy breastplate through an amazonian jungle.

    • dmost permalink
      May 27, 2014 2:55 am

      The amazonian jungle is RAIN forest. Imagine wearing inch thick quilted cotton armor that is WET. Now tell me which would fare better? A breastplate made from 1/16 inch steel, or one made from inch thick wet cotton?

  6. May 25, 2014 4:34 pm

    it might be that cotton was better armor in the rainforest than metal breastplate.

    • dmost permalink
      May 27, 2014 2:56 am

      Why would it be better?

      • Hal permalink
        November 3, 2015 2:35 am

        Because of the moisture and climate. And metal rusts.

  7. dmost permalink
    May 27, 2014 3:01 am

    Europeans didn’t want “hardness” in their armour and weapons, they wanted effectiveness. An excellent sword has a perfect mix of hardness (sharpness) and flexibility (so it doesn’t break).

    Soft armor was not unknown to europeans – they had centuries of using scale, lamelar and padding. Metal armor was simply better.

    As for the claimed benefits of padded armor – inch thick quilt will never be cooler or more flexible than well fitted and articulated plate and chainmail. Weight for weight, it might be more effective against the obsidian studded clubs used by the aztecs, but I doubt it.
    The author uses western ships as an example of western obsession with “hardness”. In fact, the ships are designed to flex and bend in rough seas, using a controlled mix of hardness and softness. The same is true of modern bridges and skyscrapers.

    Western civilization hasn’t rejected softness, but has instead mastered mixing hardness and softness.

    For me, the best example of this is the Roman Fasces – a number of small rods bound together creating a stronger whole. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fasces

  8. May 27, 2014 6:17 pm

    Everyone, thanks for the recent comments. In answer to a few of them:

    The conquistadors actually didn’t fight the Aztecs or Incas in the Amazon — or in northern South America, except a small sliver of it. The Aztecs were in central Mexico and the Incas were on the west coast of South American, particularly high in the Andes. I don’t mean to say the conquistadors never fought in the jungle. They did. But Latin American offered them a lot of climate zones — and hot weather fighting was already familiar to the Spanish. So I don’t think heat and jungle alone explain their adoption of native cotton armor.

    The point isn’t that Europeans preferred hardness to flexibility. The point is that European technology was good at making things hard and not particularly good at making things flexible, and Pre-Columbian technology was the opposite (relatively speaking).

    Finally, yes, the Europeans had experience with fabric and leather armor. But their fabric and leather armor wasn’t as good as the Pre-Columbians’, due to lesser technology for making tough, flexible materials.

    Thanks again!

    • Brian Towey permalink
      May 31, 2014 11:54 am

      I’m sorry to doubt you, but do you have any evidence for this sweeping generalization? “But their fabric and leather armor wasn’t as good as the Mesomaricans’, due to lesser technology for making tough, flexible materials.”

      Even a cursory review of 15th C literature on arms and armor shows that European military gear was based on highly evolved (quite literally by survival of the fittest) fabric and cordage, with steel only attached on the outside and then only for specific purposes. Lancers, for example, were heavily armored against other lancers; footmen were not.

      Consider for example this passage from the Ordinances of Louis XI of France (1461-1483), shortly before the Spanish colonial period began:

      “And first they must have for the said Jacks, 30, or at least 25 folds of cloth and a stag’s skin; those of 30, with the stag’s skin, being the best cloth that has been worn and rendered flexible, is best for this purpose, and these Jacks should be made in four quarters. The sleeves should be as strong as the body, with the exception of the leather, and the arm-hole of the sleeve must be large, which arm-hole should be placed near the collar, not on the bone of the shoulder, that it may be broad under the armpit and full under the arm, sufficiently ample and large on the sides below. The collar should be like the rest of the Jack, but not too high behind, to allow room for the sallet. This Jack should be laced in front, and under the opening must be a hanging piece [porte piece] of the same strength as the Jack itself. Thus the Jack will be secure and easy, provided that there be a doublet [pourpoint] without sleeves or collar, of two folds of cloth, that shall be only four fingers broad on the shoulder; to which doublet shall be attached the chausess. Thus shall the wearer float, as it were, within his jack and be at his ease; for never have been seen half a dozen men killed by stabs or arrow wounds in such Jacks, particularly if they be troops accustomed to fighting.”

      Should there be any doubt about the sophistication of European military fabrics, consider this older passage (14th C):
      How a Man Shall be Armed at His Ease when He Shall Fight on Foot (Hastings MS. [f.122b],
      Modern English Spelling by Greg Mele)

      “He shall have no shirt upon him but a doublet of fustian lined with satin, cut full of holes. The doublet must be strongly built and the points must be set about the bend of the arms. And the breast before and behind and the gussets of mail must be sown unto the doublet in the bend of the arm. And under the arm the arming points must be made of fine twine, such as men make for crossbow strings and they must be trussed small and pointed as points. And they must be waxed with cordweiners coode, and then they will neither stretch nor break. Also a pair hosen of worsted wool and pair of short bulwarks of thin blanket to put about his knees for the chafing of his leg-harness. Also a pair of shoes of thick cordwene and they must be fitted with small whipcords with three knots upon a cord and three cords must be sown fast onto the heel of the shoe and fine cords in the middle of the sole of the same shoe. And that there be between the frets of the heel and the frets of the middle of the shoe the space of three fingers.”

      (Excellent illustrations at http://www.revivalclothing.com/article-armingsequence.aspx)

      So, European military fabrics included linen, cotton, silk, fustian (linen warp with cotton weft), wool, and sinew–not to mention steel chain mail with each ring individually riveted, which is a very sophisticated fabric indeed. In addition, Europeans had a wider variety of leather hides (horse, cow, sheep, deer, goat, pig) for specific uses. What particular fabrics did the Mexica or other tribes (all different) produce that were measurably superior?

      As for Spanish troopers reverting to cloth armor, why discount the obvious explanation that it was cooler in the tropical heat, and easier to maintain in the field far from the forges of home?

      As for tension versus compression technology, it bears mentioning that the wooden hulls of the Spanish fleet were not the innovation that conquered half a planet. The intricate web of stays, guys, and sails supported by only the occasional compression mast and spar, were what enabled them to cross the ocean routinely.

  9. May 31, 2014 10:50 am

    The greek linothorax wa also a cool piece of fabric tech.

  10. Jesse permalink
    May 31, 2014 12:07 pm

    As noted above, Europeans *did* frequently use various kinds of quilted or flexible armor, though thick angled breastplates were generally preferred against firearms – in part because while a quilted armor might keep a projectile from killing you, it probably won’t keep it from crippling you. After taking a gunshot or spear to the ribs in quilted armor, even if it does not penetrate, you are quite likely to suffer broken ribs and/or severe internal bruising.

    Another note, which you’ll see a lot even in modern combat – hard shell armors tend to be very hot and uncomfortable, particularly in hot, humid environments. US soldiers have to be constantly reminded NOT to remove their highly advanced composite body armor when it gets hot out. The upper half of South American, one will note, includes a LOT of Jungle.

    Given just how many soldiers collapse/die of heatstroke in environments like that, I think it can be rather clear that their decisions regarding armor don’t always have to do with getting shot.

  11. Surya permalink
    October 4, 2015 9:22 pm

    In writing about the linothorax as mentioned in the Iliad for my senior seminar paper at UC Berkeley (of all places!), I happened upon this article. Now I’m wondering how to work Mesoamerican cotton armor into said paper… 🙂 Thank you for the fascinating read!

  12. Tyzar permalink
    December 2, 2016 4:22 pm

    I think this article is a bit “politically correct” in trying to somehow show the natives had somewhat equal armaments and that luck and disease won the day.

    I disagree entirely. Eurasian civilizations had superior fabric weaving and using cloth-leather in armor goes back to the bronze age.

    It really doesn’t matter who discovered America, the Ottomans, Chinese, Indians, or Europeans, either would have mopped the floor with any native army.

  13. Chuck Rekow permalink
    December 9, 2016 7:44 pm

    I just finished reading The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz. It’s a conquistador’s firsthand account of the seige of Tenochtitlan, and it gives a lot of details about the living conditions of the Spanish Soldiers.

    Something that is emphasized in the book that hasn’t been touched on here, is the necessity for conquistadors to sleep in their armor, so that they’d be ready to defend themselves against nighttime attacks at all times. If flexible cotton armor afforded a soldier a better night’s rest and helped to ward off fatigue, that is a huge advantage over sleeping encased in metal.

    Diaz also mentions that the conquistadors wore sandals, but he doesn’t say why or how that practice evolved.

  14. Nan Yang permalink
    February 16, 2017 10:50 pm

    Actually, wool fabric armor was commonly used by Chinese, Korean and Japanese in mid 16th until mid 19th. China & Korean copy japanese Tanegashima (Portugal matchlock trade during 16th)
    One form is similar as 13-14th european coat of plates. It was used from late Ming dynasty (1600) until Qing dynasty (1840) of China. Korean also copied this form.
    http://ww2.sinaimg.cn/large/80227c4ctw1e7hf0pnu28j219y16i7a9.jpg (armor plates riverted under the thick cotton gambeson).

    Later, Korean invented further modern bulletresist vest by using dense weaven wool fabric (13 layers – 30 layers, 2cm thick) in 1860, named Myeonje Baegab (면제배갑).
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myeonje_baegab

  15. Yutman permalink
    June 9, 2017 7:02 pm

    Um, I know this is an old thread but many modern militaries do use fabric armor. It’s called Kevlar.
    As for Mesomerican armor, I found this page trying to find historical and archaeological accounts of salt use in Mayan armor. I guess I’ll move on.

    • Brian Towey permalink
      June 10, 2017 2:38 pm

      This is a very old thread, but some of us are still subscribed. Please say more about “salt use in Mayan armor”. That sounds fascinating.

      • June 10, 2017 7:04 pm

        This is an old thread, as people have pointed out, but the page still gets tons of traffic. So the conversation is definitely worthwhile! Would love to hear about salt in Mayan armor …

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