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I need to arrange a situation in which a major conflict occurs in a relatively advanced civilization and where the fighting is of such a magnitude that all the participants are eventually reduced to the Stone Age or Bronze Age. Is this even possible? And if so how can it be achieved by conventional weapons?

The civilization has no nuclear or biological weapons but is otherwise very advanced (technology can be at any point in the twentieth century within this restriction).

The situation involves an earth like world with an earth like civilization. The details of nations, geography or political boundaries can be adjusted as required, however, the question is aimed at conventional warfare. I imagine the goal would be much easier to achieve with nuclear or biological weapons, but these are out of scope.

Note conventional war not nuclear war so different question from this one: Could humanity be blown back into the Stone Age

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    $\begingroup$ What is "reduced to the Stone Age"? Let's ignore that the stone age lasted 3 million years + in very different stages in time and geography and that at the end of the day this is a label given by a historian, what exactly do you want to happen? Writing and iron being no longer used? People becoming hunter gatherers? Please describe the result. $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Dec 14 '17 at 19:11
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    $\begingroup$ NO! Just as in all the other answers, civilization can't be reduced to the Stone Age. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Dec 14 '17 at 19:24
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    $\begingroup$ Unless you kill off everyone everywhere, technology will quickly be spread back to the areas that it was lost in. And to go back all the way to before the bronze age, you'd have to get rid of everyone and every book related to everything that involves anything more advanced. Just the idea that it is possible will mean technology will advance very quickly compared to just starting from nothing. Hard to forge iron if you didn't know iron existed but if you know all you need is a really really hot kiln, then it becomes a solvable problem. $\endgroup$ – A. C. A. C. Dec 14 '17 at 19:37
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    $\begingroup$ One big problem is that if somehow technology regresses below late-18th century level (not possible, but it's a thought experiment) then "fighting of large magnitude" becomes tricky, and if technology regresses below late-16th century level any kind of long-duration and large scale war becomes impossible. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Dec 14 '17 at 23:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Slarty: First, humanity can't be regressed back to the Stone Age (or the Bronze Age) because SA technology is as complex in its way as many modern technologies. It would have to be painstakingly rediscovered, and it would be considerably easier for survivors of war, plague, &c to salvage items that they already know how to use from the ruins. Forging a sword out of scrap steel is a heck of a lot easier than learning to knapp a stone axehead and securely bind it to a haft - and easier still to raid the nearest hardware store. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Dec 15 '17 at 2:21

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No: Culture and technology will persist

Total regression to "the stone age" would require a massively-expensive conflict that collapses the economies of those involved. But it has to go much farther. Countries have continued to fight wars with devastated economies. This war must destroy all trade and all firms and all capital...and all their associated structure...

AND destroys knowledge management (schools, libraries, etc) including professional knowledge (banking, law, medicine, science, technology) and practical survival/fieldcraft (navigation, calendar, weather, domestication, food preservation)...

AND utterly devastates the social fabric of both societies so deeply that parents won't pass much on what they do know to the next generation...

AND, of course, wipes out most infrastructure (energy, communication, food, libraries [again!]) to prevent survivors from collaborating.

Hmmm. Even Genghis Khan, who had some pretty severe policies, wasn't even close to that kind of devastation. And the question requires BOTH sides to be devastated.

Also, there's also a basic paradox involved: If all structures, laws, social agreements, infrastructure, and technologies of both civilization are in the process of being methodically destroyed, they cannot maintain the complex, expensive, and expansive organized militaries to actually carry out the policies of further destruction.

Finally, not sure how you would keep the survivors from collaborating to rebuild, say, a bit of electrical power or a water pump or a radio or using double-entry accounting or a calendar. A lot of this knowledge is just so darn useful.

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    $\begingroup$ Exactly. Unless you can manage to wipe out almost all of the scientists and engineers and their ability to record or otherwise pass on their knowledge, civilization can't be reverted that far. Certainly, you could make a mess of things, but, even if you managed to destroy every last bit of electronic storage, you'd still have to do something about the millions of science, mathematics, and engineering texts spread all over any large developed nation to actually get the culture back into the stone age. Just my shelf of texts from college would keep man out of the stone age. $\endgroup$ – reirab Dec 15 '17 at 6:37
  • $\begingroup$ "This war must destroy (...) all capital (..) AND, of course, wipes out most infrastructure" - isn't infrastructure a type of capital [goods]? $\endgroup$ – Maciej Piechotka Dec 16 '17 at 6:12
  • $\begingroup$ @MaciejPiechotka I'm sure with a bit of consideration, we can all can think of non-capital infrastructure. The current way it's written is intended to be clear to non-economists, too. Happy to listen to any suggestions to improve. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Dec 16 '17 at 6:18
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    $\begingroup$ Problem is - you would not end up in the stone age. Medieval times, maybe. But Stone Age means not loosing scientists, it means loosing everony who was not sleeping in school. $\endgroup$ – TomTom Dec 16 '17 at 16:05
  • $\begingroup$ @user535733 For non-economist capital means (I think?) money. However than there is no point in destroying it - it will just become useless paper and slightly more valuable yellow rocks. $\endgroup$ – Maciej Piechotka Dec 16 '17 at 20:26
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There is 17G ton of steel in human made structures nowadays. Pre-industrial consumption was some kgs of iron per human per year! Also population would decline a lot after fall of civilization.

So, even considering rusting, there would be enough iron laying around to last a couple of centuries. Simply make a forge, do some work with hammer and you have much better tool than stone age tech can produce(some edge cases excepted - like obsidian blades) and much cheaper than bronze.

To produce good iron blade the blacksmith must know a lot, so there would be incentive to keep at least basic knowledge about iron processing and iron making.

So even if civilization does not recover in a couple of centuries, the survivors would remember enough to reproduce something like this.

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    $\begingroup$ Indeed, it'd be a stone age with steel knives and Kalashnikov ARs. But the people will in many respects be on a lower tech level than the cave men. They don't know HOW to make the steel, only how to scavenge it... which is something cavemen could do, too. But most people don't know how to make snares to catch rabbits. $\endgroup$ – Johnny Dec 15 '17 at 12:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Johnny: Evolution will take care of those who can't hunt or grow food. As for Kalashnikovs, they make poor clubs. $\endgroup$ – MSalters Dec 15 '17 at 14:57
  • $\begingroup$ @MSalters Unnatural selection will surely kill a lot of people. Those who survive will make sure to have plenty of ammo for their guns. Obama bought enough hollow point ammo to shoot every man, woman and child about 200 times, a while back. So, I expect there to be plenty of ammo to last, for the major warlords and survivors. $\endgroup$ – Johnny Dec 15 '17 at 15:45
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    $\begingroup$ +1 because this is a very good and important point. Improvements in manufacturing and metallurgy mean modern mass produced cheap steel is pretty incredible by standards of earlier times. For example, those Kalashnikovs (and most other military weapons) others mentioned have barrels that would look like "magic metal" just few centuries back. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Dec 15 '17 at 16:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Johnny: Cave men couldn't scavenge steel, because there wasn't any around to scavenge. And you won't have AK-47s once you run out of ammunition. (You can scavenge brass, but how do you make primers?) But you can build really good bows. Most people may not know how to make snares &c, but some do, and there are books. Unless you can somehow wipe out all knowledge, the people who know (or can find) better ways of doing things will pass that knowledge to others. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Dec 15 '17 at 19:09
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Figuratively? Yes, of course, that's pretty easy.

Literally? This is somewhere in between a loud, definite "No!" and "Hardly, in a reasonable setting".

You can figuratively set an entire nation back to the stone age with conventional weapons rather easily. Bomb their cities, destroy their electric power plants, maybe cut a few transmission lines and phone lines as well to be sure, destroy much of the most important infrastructure (water supply, bridges, major roads, gas pipeline), and perform a Pol Pot shuffle. Declare a trade embargo, and shoot at aid organizations trying to enter the country. Done.
Most of your enemies will starve away within a month or die from cold during the next winter (and many of those that remain will die from disease), but if that is tolerable, there you go, they're now basically back at the stone age, figuratively. They'll still have metal items, but no machines (none that work, anyway), and no engineers to restore operability or fuel/energy to operate them. Resources such as coal and oil will be used up in a couple of weeks. There will be no easy way of long-range communications, no functional government, and a scarcity of food and basic supplies (medicine) beyond our imagination. It will take them several generations to get back on their feet again, if at all.

Literally, it's a different matter. Not only is there a lot of metal (and plastics) lying around ready to be picked up, but also stone age means not just using metal. It means, among other things, not having knowledge of agriculture (not what we call agriculture today, or what we called agriculture 200 years ago, anyway) or knowledge of a million other seemingly trivial things (reading/writing, to name one). Including the knowledge about ores and, well, heating them to get metal. Or, knowledge such as how to make black powder, which at the time of my childhood pretty much every 10 year old knew. Or even basic knowledge of physics, which will be entirely sufficient to build a primitive generator. All those things that are absolutely trivial for a modern human, but divine magic for a stone-age human.

So, in addition to first incinerating the whole place (to be sure no books survive) and then going through with a metal detector, carefully removing everything, and then killing everybody above the age of 5, you have no way of getting close to "stone age", literally. Then again, 5 year olds left alone won't survive, so it would be rather "total extermination" than "stone age".

You would really have to raise those 5 year olds (preferably younger) on an isolated island deprived of any manufactured non-stick, non-stone goods, and not give them any kind of education. Wait 15-20 years, done.

In theory, that's doable, of course; but in a reasonable science-based setting, I'd say... "No way!".

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    $\begingroup$ Five-year-olds might wind up retaining a surprising amount, even so - at least enough to rederive writing and basic math. They'd probably also have some additional insight into useful tool shapes, and the concept of farming. $\endgroup$ – Ben Barden Dec 15 '17 at 16:17
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    $\begingroup$ Even without any actual idea of how things work, simply having the vague knowledge that it's even a thing that's possible gives people a huge leg up over the generations of discoveries made purely by accident and only after more generations of of failure (e.g. even five year olds probably have an idea that, say, "fire" is even a thing that can be both useful and controlled, rather than just a random chaotic thing that eats your loved ones and scares away food). You'd pretty much need to strike out all memory of "technology" entirely, using the broadest possible definition of "technology". $\endgroup$ – goldPseudo Dec 15 '17 at 23:47
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A historical parallel could be made to the fall of the Roman Empire and the medieval Dark Ages.

Essentially, centuries of endless conflict and bloodshed with no real victor has a reversing effect on human progression and achievement.

This isn't unrealistic either.

In order to have an advanced technology, you need to be able to distribute and specialize labor. That requires an economy where goods can be dispersed allowing individuals to focus on matters other than personal survival. This also requires a government/laws to protect markets and trade so that goods and services can be exchanged.

You can't have an iPhone factory if everyone is just taking the phones.

After generations of such conflict, knowledge becomes lost causing reversion of human progression. Then the final reversion is the loss of data in the form of actual databases/infrastructure to books and scrolls.

For instance: if somehow every electronic data storage device was simultaneously destroyed. The loss to modern human progress would be incalculable.

So in your world just have cultures that constantly clash violently and without any real periods of peace.

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    $\begingroup$ The major difference between the classical world and the (European) medieval world was not technological. The medieval world had "about" the same technology as the classical world; there were some losses of technology but they were not essential. The major difference were in the social structure, the structure of the economy, and of the judicial system -- not to mention the postclassical population crash. It's not as if the Romans had electric light and somehow the barbarians came and smashed all light bulbs. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Dec 14 '17 at 23:42
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP You couldn't be more wrong, Construction techniques are each a technology. Concrete is a technology. Much of this was lost with the collapse of the Roman Empire and remained lost well beyond the renaissance. If you kill off all the people who know how to do this stuff, or they are unable to pass off their knowledge because they are more concerned with surviving, that knowledge/technology becomes lost. Concrete alone was completely reinvented in 1849 with no classical influence what so ever. $\endgroup$ – anon Dec 14 '17 at 23:56
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    $\begingroup$ Some technology was lost; concrete is famous example, but not the only one -- torsion artillery was lost too, and lost was the art of designing and building sewers and aqueducts and dams, and most of the techniques of painting and sculpting, and glass cameos, and roads, and quite a bit of administrative know-how. That is why I said "about" the same technology. But the bulk of technological level was never lost; since you mentioned construction technology: the Hagia Sophia cathedral was built in the 6th century. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Dec 15 '17 at 0:29
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    $\begingroup$ The concrete formula wasn't lost. They couldn't obtain the very special volcanic ash only found in a very little part of Italy because trading reduced a lot. If you can't get volcanic ash, you need to use lime and get a worse building material. $\endgroup$ – Alberto Yagos Dec 15 '17 at 12:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Graham: "The level of technology after the fall of Rome was purely the level of the barbarian tribes, nothing more": maybe in England.Vast areas in Western Europe didn't experience any discontinuity -- for example Provence (i.e., Southern France), Italy (actually large parts of Italy ramained part of the Roman Empire), or Iberia (eventually lost to the Moors). One must make the distinction between technology (knowing how stuff is made) and economic activity (actually making stuff on a large scale). When and where economic activity continued or was restarted technology was usually at hand. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Dec 15 '17 at 16:03
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Set the civilization back - definitely. Regress to the stone age - not possibly.

In any long-term military conflict (with symmetrical warfare), a country must take care of its industry. If its mines or factories stop running, or can not produce sufficiently advanced weapons, it will be defeated. So we can be assured that every side will take to protect its technology and manufacturing base. Long war can wear this manufacturing base down, but as soon as that happens, that side's war is lost.

Can all countries lose their manufacturing bases simultaneously? Very, very unlikely. And even after losing a war, a country will try to do its best to get back on its feet. We need stockpiles of weapons much larger than their possible targets that even after losing all of the factories a country would still have enough to wage a conventional war that may have to last years. And that's not the case today, or even tomorrow.

However, if we have some kind of anti-technology cult that has millions of followers all over the world and can launch highly destructive low tech attacks, my calculations would not hold true.

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    $\begingroup$ Wars tend to unite a populace, so ironically they're a less effective way to regress people. You need to disorganize a nation/civilization in order to keep it in a stone age state. If it isn't organized enough to repair many billions of dollars of infrastructure, then the people will be forced to hunt for food and water. $\endgroup$ – Johnny Dec 15 '17 at 12:13
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While I think it would be hard to reduce a 20th-century civilisation to a primitive level, I believe it is not impossible. However, it will require a total war involving all nations of your world and some cultural changes.

Your people should be willing to fight to the last person. They also should be unreasonable enough to prefer high-cost victories to ceasefires. Religious wars might be just the thing for you. If all countries are theocracies (or something similar) and are engaged in a global war fuelled by fanatism you might get enough people killed to make rebuilding impossible for at least a couple of generations.

I would suggest a universal adoption of the scorched-earth strategy. This will guarantee very high levels of destruction. Moreover, if done properly it will be hard to salvage anything. Not to mention, that this strategy also dramatically reduces food and water supplies (poison wells, destroy crops, etc.). This will definitely bring deaths of millions of people.

Napalm and chemical weapons should be widely employed against civilian populations. If done right, attacks will result in plenty of injured people and not so many deaths. It will help to drain the resources and reduce the number of people fit for work or military service.

All of your countries must have well-developed propaganda machines. Lay people have to believe that total and uncompromised victory is the only solution to their problems with neighbours. Civilian populations should be ready to sacrifice everything for the war effort and to endure any suffering brought by the war.

It is extremely important to destroy as much as possible. But it is even more important to reduce global population. Destruction of arable land would be highly beneficial as it will prohibit high-density population centres.

The war should be rather short. It would be wise for all countries to stockpile various supplies prior to its start. If my tactical suggestions are implemented the industrial base will be destroyed shortly and it might become challenging to achieve population numbers necessary for the desired technological collapse.

Why am I focusing on population? Different levels of technology require certain numbers of people to support them. According to some estimates, contemporary technological level needs from 100 mln to 1 billion people, Victorian level technology needs at least 10 000 people (from The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm by Lewis Dartnell). So, if you reduce the population, make it really hard to get food and water (everybody is foraging, no free hands to specialise), and create conditions for low population density, it will become impossible to maintain technologies. It might take about 50-70 years, but once a significant number of people familiar with technologies dies it will be lost. It does not matter if underground libraries and blueprints survive.

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Yes.

Assuming space travel tech that existed in the 1960s.

First, using Saturn V, or N1, rockets, physically collide with a massive asteroid and set it on a collision path to earth.

The asteroid that killed the dinosaurs was only 6 to 9 miles in diameter. I bet we can get something bigger.

Once the sunlight is blocked and crops fail, the mass starvation and total environmental collapse will result in the total and complete collapse of all civilizations.

The dearth of oxygen, due to the death of the vast majority of plant life, will result in humanity basically becoming extinct except for in a few remote locations underground where humans survive off of the heat from local volcanic activity, and the oxygen produced by bacteria, and eating troglobites to survive.

There are probably pockets of plants left near the equator and near jetstreams to help with Oxygen production. Plants clearly survived the Dinosaur killer after all.

By the time the next Ice Age is over, you'll be back in the Stone Age.

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EDIT: For a more conventional wartime way to achieve this, imagine a genocidal crusade, the goal is to literally BURN every single city, is launched by both sides, but a "base trade" situation occurs, where the competing armies miss one another, and both proceed to ravage the other nation, and burn every single city in both countries. The cities burning would output enough smoke to block sunlight, the equivalent to a conventional version of Sagan's 'Nuclear Winter'; thus, the resulting ice age would end with a new stone age.

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    $\begingroup$ While both correct and creative, I doubt that that a mass extinction event is what OP meant by "conventional weaponry". :) $\endgroup$ – Ian Kemp Dec 15 '17 at 23:38
  • $\begingroup$ Heh, fair. At least I didn't use Nukes or Biological weapons ;) $\endgroup$ – Lee Gildemeester Dec 16 '17 at 0:48
  • $\begingroup$ For a more conventional wartime way to achieve this, imagine a genocidal crusade, the goal is to literally BURN every single city, is launched by both sides, but a "base trade" situation occurs, where the competing armies miss one another, and both proceed to ravage the other nation, and burn every single city in both countries. The cities burning would output enough smoke to block sunlight, the equivalent to a conventional version of Sagan's 'Nuclear Winter'; thus, the resulting ice age would end with a new stone age. $\endgroup$ – Lee Gildemeester Dec 16 '17 at 0:56
  • $\begingroup$ But why would this cause the survivors to develop a new version of the Stone Age, rather than simply adapt existing tech and salvaged materials to better survive in the new environment? Stone Age tech is not simple: it would have to be rediscovered. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Dec 16 '17 at 18:51
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf It is a different sort of stone age, surely. More of its own unique scavenger age. For many of the survivors will know less than Caveman would, for surviving in this world. Once food and water runs short, they'll be employing incompetent stone age methods with improvised tools in an attempt to survive. $\endgroup$ – Johnny Dec 16 '17 at 20:49
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This could be possible with a two-part process: firstly, one culture could decide to regress another that it had conquered as punishment for some kind of slight. Enforced over a long enough period, maybe relocated to a resource-poor region, that culture could regress to fairly primitive ways and end up on that sort of level.

The more advanced culture could then encounter some disaster of their own, wiping them out entirely and leaving the regressed culture in that state. As long as the advanced culture was distant enough (say, on a different continent), access to their tech would be difficult and unlikely to advance the regressed culture until discovered.

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A classic war is unlikely to accidentally result in a such a set-back.

Yet if a group within a civilization has the very goal of restoring the entire population to an idealized version of an ancient way of life, they might succeed.

One rather recent historic example of such an attempt would be the Red Khmer with their leader Pol Pot, who strongly idealized an agriculture society and wanted to reset the country to the ways of the old people, resulting in a large scale genocide especially against their own Intelligentsia ("To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.") and forced relocation of the people from the cities to rural areas and abolishment of schools.

They wanted to abolish everything modernized 20th century society requires and only were forcefully stopped by a Vietnamese intervention.

They wanted to build an agrarian socialist utopia.

In your setting, it could be a group of eco-terrorist/friends-of-nature forcing/helping to restore the planet to the ill-visioned/right way of life, who succeeded.

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I think you would need biological or nuclear weapons.

Imagine a world war that lasts for a decade or more. That in conjunction with nuclear explosions or epidemics (like airborne Ebola virus), could very well reduce the population enough and devastate economies enough to revert.

I don't think you would get to the stone age right away, or that it would be a guarantee. There will be people with expertise, but as long as those individuals don't have a means of passing that information to future generations, it will be lost.

Additionally, if these people are isolated to a region of the world, they may not have access to where the information is stored.

I do agree with the other commenters that it would be nigh impossible to revert to the actual Stone Age.

You may find the show the 100 interesting; it handles a similar concept.

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  • $\begingroup$ "I imagine the goal would be much easier to achieve with nuclear or biological weapons, but these are out of scope." $\endgroup$ – Ian Kemp Dec 15 '17 at 23:38
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Yes, civilisations can and have regressed technologically. If you support the propositions put forward in the book Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, the level of civilisation basically relates to the amount of food production and hence population.

Where an advanced society reaches situations where population had to be limited so did their technological capabilities. Skills sets were forgotten as people having them died out and without sufficient surplus resources to spare a replacement individual from the chores of hunting and gathering. This has been studied and examined extensively in the same text.

The stone age was the age of human hunting and gathering. So your war would have to reduce the population to rely on this intensive activity. This would mean no organsied farming of any kind. This would require all domesticated animals (horses, donkeys, cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys, pigs) to be extinct or unavailable and only dangerous large mammals to remain.

Also agriculture would have to be restricted, either through loss of crops/seeds and/or failure of mechanisation (through a lack of fuel) as well as a lack of beasts of burden. Also another ice age, (which would leave the planet drier and colder) would help reduce the ability to grow crops, as we didn't grow any until the end of the last ice age 10000 years ago.

I would think that a long war that exhausted all the fuel on earth, plus pestilence/plague and famine to wipe out most of the population and animals. Possibly bought on by a new Ice Age would produce a civilisation whose populance has to spend their entire day hunting and gathering to survive.

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Realistically: no. There is no way you could destroy pretty much everything there is. And even if you manage to do that, people would still have the knowledge they had prior to the war. It would definitly be a huge setback, but definitly not dozens of millenia worth of progress.

Even knowing that something is possible (like metalworking or electricity) would be a huge advantage. The problem with inventing something new is, well, that it's new. You don't know it is possible, so it's very difficult to even think of it. If you know it's possible, you can go straight to trying to develop it again.

The survivors would also most likely try to get things electricity back as soon as possible. If a group of people can find someone that knows a lot about electricity, that actually shouldn't be too hard. And that goes for pretty much everything. Knowledge is not something you can just destroy. To destroy all knowledge, you'd have to destroy all books, hard drives and whatever other means people used to store knowledge. On top of that you'd need to kill every living human that has some knowledge (so pretty much everyone, even toddlers), which would make it impossible to have a civilization at the stone age.

I think it's not possible to set civilization back to before the medieval era, just because we have so much knowledge. Even if you were to transport humans to an entirely new planet, they'd quickly get some infrastructure going with some form of trading (it'd probably their second priority, right after food and water).

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The only way for survivors of a catastrophic global conflict to be left with only stone-age technology would be if that's all they had to begin with. In other words, if the only survivors were the "uncontacted" peoples of remote islands and deep jungles who never learned to smelt metals (or even knew it was possible).

As mentioned in other answers, just knowing a thing is possible (like making things out of metal) goes a long way to rediscovering the required processes and skills. Having at least a rough idea of how it's done (as can be passed down verbally) is plenty to ignite the rediscovery process and re-learn the finer points of doing it well, doing it efficiently, and scaling it up to an industrial scale (assuming there is spare human capital to put toward the effort).

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A weapon that kills everyone except the people on North Sentinel Island

Note: Does not fit with the "conventional war" requirement, but as others have stated, doing so through conventional war is basically impossible. A biological weapon seems the most likely.

North Sentinel Island is an island in the Indian Ocean, essentially isolated from the modern world. The people who live there, the Sentinelese, maintain a hunter-gatherer society without any evidence of agriculture or even fire. One of the last cultures uncontacted by modern civilization, they are known for attacking anyone who lands on the island. The island is considered protected and contact of any sort is extremely rare and growing more infrequent over time.

Imagine an extremely contagious biological weapon with an incredibly long dormancy period - long enough and contagious enough to spread to every human on Earth without being noticed, at which point it triggers and kills everyone except for the isolated inhabitants of this island. While there may be hermits elsewhere isolated from society, they are unlikely to rebuild society on their own, especially if the virus remains dangerous for a long period afterwards.

Hundreds of years later, the inhabitants of the island may begin to explore the surrounding seas and begin to spread across the world. Lacking knowledge of post stone-age culture that would allow them to comprehend the ruins they find, they are unlikely to learn anything from the dead remains of civilization for many centuries to come.

Note: There are a few other uncontacted stone-age tribes that are isolated from modern civilization. They might survive as well.

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  • $\begingroup$ North Sentinel Island... wow $\endgroup$ – Len Apr 18 '18 at 18:32
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The only way to achieve a worldwide collapse of such a magnitude is by simultaneously killing every person above a certain age (or erasing their knowledge), as well as destroying/wiping every knowledge store (book, computer, etc.) in existence at the exact same time.

That is impossible using what we would consider conventional weapons, so the answer is a resounding NO.

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Given the right setting, absolutely possible.

You indicated that such things as population and the existence of other nations is malleable, so lets change a few things.

America became great with a population of just over 200 million or so through the 1900's, so a small population is feasible.

We have a multi-national world mosaic, simply because of the huge diverse continental areas available. So let's restrict this.

Civilizations got a boost because of favorable climate, and areas of unfavorable climate (too hot or too cold) did not contribute substantially to human technological growth, so let's play with climate as well.

And availability of resources certainly has everything to do with the development of technology. Modern humans went through the various 'metal'ages because there were sources of these metals easily obtained, on the surface. The copper age would never have happened if no one was able to find and mine early copper deposits. So we need a land mass with easily obtained varied resources.

So lets assume an 'earth' with a single habitable land mass equivalent to, say, 50% larger than Australia (about the area of China). Big enough to offer a multitude of resources, but small enough to prevent divergent human speciation (otherwise known as 'human races') and 'zenophobia'. Put it in a fairly temperate climate zone, but with dramatic seasonal changes to make survival somewhat tenuous. Keeping warm, keeping cool, and moving from place to place are motivations for technological invention and entrepreneurship. Lots of mineral wealth close to the surface. Lots of resources. Say the population reaches a billion (roughly equivalent to the population density of China). It is all one single nation, one race. No multi-ethnic problems. Cultural diversity is by location and function - farming, manufacturing, fishing, mining, and so on - but generally homogeneous.

But there are an abundance of social pressures. Population density, resources running out, climate change, food production, pollution, all the things we have today that are a result of growth. Friction develops. Growth slows down,almost stagnates. Huge polarization in wealth and income distribution. Two sides become polarized. Violence and rioting break out.

Now, let's put some historical pieces into play.

The American Civil War almost bankrupt the nation. What saved America was the rest of the world. Their economy was still functioning, America could trade with them. Also, America depended on immigration from Europe. Almost a million Americans died as a result of the Civil War. Isolate America, and it would have been kicked back a few decades, especially if the South had been victorious and the North was ransacked.

Consider China under chairman Mao, and the cultural revolution. Official government policy backed up by military force pushed China back to a rural agrarian society. Technology was all but banished. Universities were closed, the intelligentsia were killed off, and knowledge was quite literally destroyed. This knowledge was preserved in the rest of the world, but suppose China WAS the ONLY world?

Suppose there was only the Middle East. No Western nations. Consider how close ISIS came to driving Syria and Iraq back to an agrarian society.

Last, consider how far back Cuba was kicked when Russia collapsed. Except for the main city of Havana, it pretty much decayed. Industry collapsed, infrastructure rotted away, and the internet age never happened. It wasn't a lack of knowledge, as education was still paramount in Cuban society. It was a lack of resources. Again, outside countries preserved these physical technologies, and they are being re-introduced into Cuba. But if Cuba were the ONLY country? And resources dried up completely? All of the knowledge from civilization won't help if there is nothing left to build with.

So, yes, assume a country limited in size, in resources, with no other supporting nations to stabilize the mean, no other lands to provide enclaves of refuge. Add a civil war that accelerated the depletion of its resources. Out of the civil war an extremist fanatical fundamentalist-mentality (right-or-left-wing) anti-tech ideologically-driven faction took hold of the government, it is possible to imagine a scenario wherein an advanced society could be kicked back into a subsistence level of existence through conventional weaponry armed conflict.

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Sure, happens all the time in Africa. The warlords roll through with their technicals (Toyota pickups with machine guns mounted on the bed), loot every house and burn some, kill some of the men, abduct some male children, and that's just the printable stuff. Do that on a national scale 4-5 times, and they'd be in the stone age.

However, once the warlords get sick of doing that, or get dead, then all it'll take is for someone who remembers electricity to talk to someone who can work copper. Power will be running heaters and pumps within a year. People who remember how to machine things will have wooden then bronze mills and lathes worked out, and the implementation of the tech will keep getting better and better, and you'll have lighting, vaccines and epoxy within 5 years, quite possibly skipping incandescent and going straight to arc-discharge. If the epoxy is decent, you'll skip the metal ages altogether and go straight to composites.

The currency of progress will be memory: When the semiconductor people achieve the first silicon chip with 2 transistors on it, they'll turn immediately to making it 2000 then 2 million, because they remember 100 million, so they know it is achievable. Within another couple years they'll have Arduino class computing on a chip, with early attention paid to memory protection and other modern features that make systems stabls. Not one person will hand thread a single core, the entire 40s-60s evolution of mainframes will just be skipped. Large businesses will run their accounting and business systems on these tiny things, probably using whatever OO language can be squeezed onto the platforms (skipping COBOL and all that).

Now if you murder all the tech people and leave only Douglas Adams' "one-third" of the population, the others will become technical people, knowing the things are possible... But will have a longer journey, lacking direct memory of how things were done. At least someone will survive who can tell them, though.

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  • $\begingroup$ Could those warlords do that in the rural US, where a large fraction of the rural population is armed, and a good few have significant military/combat experience? $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Dec 18 '17 at 2:54
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf without their consent, probably not. But that might be where it begins. Aside from guns, they also have plenty of stock of pickup trucks, religion, and crazy. $\endgroup$ – Harper - Reinstate Monica Dec 18 '17 at 4:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Harper Well, that's the USA in general. Cults, insane political movements, drugs, poverty, starvation, favouring interpersonal violence as a career, random terrorism, yeah, the whole lot. But the vast majority of that is in the cities, people move to the country to get away from that stuff. I can see some farming communities becoming city states, isolationist and religious. But "warlords", in the sense of invasion with dreams of empire? That would be the domain of the remnants of street gangs, corporations, and law firms. $\endgroup$ – Johnny Dec 18 '17 at 6:54
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Can a civilization collapse to the Stone Age?

A civilization? Sure. All you need to do is wipe out their source of power/electricity, and leave them in a state chaotic enough that they can't rebuild. A lot of economies have collapsed like that, to varying extents.

Why is electricity so vital?

The reason is simple. Without electricity... how will you cook? How will you keep yourself warm? How will you see at night? How will you know what's going on in the world? How will you communicate? How will you get food from the store, if they are having all these same problems,and all the food rots from lack of refrigeration? How will you get clean drinking water?

Few people have methods of dealing with these problems, if the grid breaks down entirely. Even if you personally could manage, the inability of those around you is going to create a lot of chaos and damage.

Won't outsiders help you get back on your feet?

What about outside aid? Even the USA working to help Puerto Rico is failing. That's one of the foremost economic powers assisting a small island nation.

Isn't it hard to cause this?

Not at all. Detroit, for example, is bringing in cattle and using a local community currency in place of money. Electricity is becoming a rarity there, where neighbours are working together to try and get enough money to get electricity.

That goes to show how important the NATION'S organization is. If it's good, then you can kill 90% of the populace, and they'll rebuild themselves within three generations. If it is bad, then they'll personally cause their regression to stone age cattle farmers.

But it's not really the stone age, right?

It basically is. Again, how will you eat? A lot of people will be scavenging for barbecues and fuel, but others will have to try and cook over wood fires like cavemen.

How will you keep yourself warm in the winter? I you're lucky, you still have an intact insulated house, which will remain warm without electric heating. If not, or your house falls into disrepair... you'll have to try and scavenge enough clothes and blankets and fuel for fire. When those run short, you'll have to hunt animals for furs.

Why not just rebuild?

Again, organization. Puerto Rico can't simply, "just rebuild" because it would be too expensive, and their economy is in shambles. That's why the USA isn't paying many billions of dollars to redo their whole power infrastructure, because it's so expensive and difficult.

And that's the government... normal people have it WAY harder. If you can't find a power generator, what are you doing to do... make one? Because that's a really complicated device to try and make from whatever tools you can scavenge with a coal furnace (if you can even obtain a coal furnace). And many of the components, you just won't know how to make. The microchips and delicate electronics we use in so many of this era's devices.

In the case of an EMP, it will be very hard to even find many components, as most will be frazzled.

But this couldn't happen to a major nation, right?

Puerto Rico was once one of the largest trading ports in the world. There's no such thing as, "too big to fail".

There is concern that an EMP from North Korea could drive the USA into the stone age. The cost of repairs would be astronomical. The US already badly neglects its infrastructure, so whether they can foot the bill for repairs when the economy grinds to a halt until the repairs is in question.

Civil unrest would make recovery difficult or impossible. Even under good conditions, it is likely many areas of the USA would go without power for decades (many areas already have problems with bad roads, sewage, and power infrastructure).

What would this world look like?

Worse than the poorest parts of India. In many places, India is cellphones and wood fires. This would be wood fires, copper knives, and a few AK-47s, fighting overs cans of beans.

Though, actually, the knives and tools will probably be made of good steel. There's so much scrap steel around, it's much easier to tear apart a car and use leaf-spring to forge a knife, rather than trying to make your own iron blooms or melt down wires to get copper. If not for scavengeable steel, in fact... it would literally be the stone age, no one would even be able to mine copper, much less bronze. They would have to use stone tools, as stones would be something you could still find.

Luckily, there's plenty of scrap to forage for.

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    $\begingroup$ What is all that you were saying about Detroit? Local currency in place of money? Electricity a rarity? People working together to get enough money for some electricity? What is all this you're going on about??? Some links for that paragraph would be great. $\endgroup$ – Loduwijk Dec 14 '17 at 22:49
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    $\begingroup$ Electricity is also easy to produce, and sources to produce it in useful small quantities are right now widely available and getting more so. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Dec 15 '17 at 0:59
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    $\begingroup$ $Johnny, who said anything about a grid? The question was about reverting to a stone age. Even in Puerto Rico there are hundreds of thousands or more possible ways of producing at least some electricity, if through nothing else than rigging up car alternators to produce low-voltage sources and using something from water wheels to bicycles to windmills to power them. The reason no one has is because it isn't enough to power an industrial society, which is very far from a stone age, and because they shouldn't be needing to because of access to the rest of society. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Dec 15 '17 at 7:32
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    $\begingroup$ ...Errr, water wheels? Is that an entirely theoretical method, or have you heard of someone generating power in Puerto Rico by that method? Because I'd rather not talk about people dying with theoretical methods of why they should not have problems. If it were as simple as setting up a chain of bicycles.... then the few hospitals that are running would not have problems of maintaining electricity, would they? In the end, you admit your strange ideas have no application for saving the people from this stone age, but only makes light of their predicament. $\endgroup$ – Johnny Dec 15 '17 at 9:45
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    $\begingroup$ "Even the USA working to help Puerto Rico is failing. That's one of the foremost economic powers assisting a small island nation." You are aware that Puerto Rico isn't a nation in its own right but is part of the USA, right? I mean, in all fairness, I don't think most of the Trump administration realises that Puerto Rico is part of the USA either. $\endgroup$ – F1Krazy Dec 15 '17 at 9:59

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