Out in the desert wastes of my planet, there are living multiple tribes of psychotic raiders who have acquired a number of harmful mutations due to naturally high radiation in the areas that they live. Years of exposure and inbreeding in each individual tribe have made these mutations much more severe, and as a result the raiders have short life spans, weak immune systems, and often times diminished intelligence. The only positive part is that they are usually very large and physically powerful, partially due to genetics and partially due to their rough lifestyle. This combination of nature and nurture also ensures they are as violent as possible. They raid constantly, not only out of violence, but also out of desperation as they have a mutation that keeps them from making a certain chemical in the body. The lack of this chemical is agonizing to them, but a certain, simple food gives them the chemical they lack, and only civilized city centers are capable of producing it.

So here's what I need to know: What type of mineral or chemical deficiency would be agonizing to live with, but not fatal? Preferably something that causes mental issues like hallucinations or extreme aggression. Also, what type of food could possibly give a person the chemical or mineral they are lacking?

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    $\begingroup$ Water, next question. $\endgroup$
    – AJFaraday
    Jan 11, 2018 at 14:49
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    $\begingroup$ @AJFaraday: water deficiency is extremely fatal. $\endgroup$
    – BenM
    Jan 11, 2018 at 14:52
  • $\begingroup$ @BenM People will go to great lengths to get water. $\endgroup$
    – AJFaraday
    Jan 11, 2018 at 15:00
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    $\begingroup$ How about something they need like medicines? For example, treatments for parasites like worms, which could be visibly yucky and mutated, too. I suppose a disease would be as bad. $\endgroup$ Jan 11, 2018 at 16:23
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    $\begingroup$ @AJFaraday As a bonus, the raiders are living in desert, which by definition has scarce water. $\endgroup$
    – jpmc26
    Jan 12, 2018 at 0:04

7 Answers 7


Oh man, it's questions like this that remind me to be really glad I live in this century and not any of the thousands that came before. Let's look at a few of the most likely deficiencies that your raiders could have and assess their effects.

Vitamin deficiencies

Wikipedia has an entire page dedicated to dealing with vitamin deficiencies and their respective effects. Vitamin deficiencies have been a huge problem for humanity since, well, forever, and until we'd identified the major players and produced them in massive quantity or enable easier access, they killed a lot of people.

Some notable vitamin deficiencies:

  • Thiamine- obtained from seeds, rice, or legumes. Deficiencies lead to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome or beriberi and can lead to "ocular disturbances" and "changes in mental state".
  • Vitamin E - found in many plant oils. Deficiencies lead to degradation of neural activity and a variety of changes in mental state.

However, most vitamins are found naturally in plants and are unlikely to be restricted to civilized centers.

Micronutrient and mineral deficiencies

Again, Wikipedia has an entire page on this, although slightly sketchier than the one about vitamin deficiencies. However, there are some important possibilities in here:

  • Iodine is a great real-world example. It's a vital part of any diet, and nowadays most of us get it from iodized salt. Deficiencies cause goiter and a list of other diseases including cretinism
  • Iron deficiency is another common one, but doesn't cause the effects you're hoping for. Instead, it causes low blood cell counts and anemia.

Both of these are possibilities for your world- salt is much more likely to be iodized in cities and can be found in other foods there, such as fish, while iron is much easier to find due to the higher abundance of red meats.

Worldbuilding style

If you wanted to be especially malicious, the deficiency I'd create is in proopiomelanocortin. This compound is a precursor to many other vital hormones, but is most importantly a vital part of the endorphin synthesis process in humans. If radiation were to knock out this gene, humans wouldn't die- they'd just be in pain much of the time and unable to experience many pleasures. More details about this deficiency can be found here.

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    $\begingroup$ "In pain much of the time and unable to experience many pleasures" - so they're stuck in high school forever? $\endgroup$
    – corsiKa
    Jan 11, 2018 at 20:22
  • $\begingroup$ If they're unable to experience "many pleasures" and they don't have the cognitive ability to choose to reproduce, wouldn't they just die out after a couple generations? $\endgroup$
    – Zenon
    Jan 11, 2018 at 23:45
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    $\begingroup$ @corsiKa You mean not appreciating the freedom they've got, only wishing for the things they see others having? That does seem to fit the bill of psychotic raiders. $\endgroup$ Jan 12, 2018 at 10:38
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    $\begingroup$ @LioElbammalf Worldbuilding always manages to hit so close to home... $\endgroup$
    – corsiKa
    Jan 12, 2018 at 16:08

Keep it simple: food.

Since there are "desert wastes", producing food "the natural way" could be nigh impossible, and you'd need moderately advanced technology to grow enough plants - fertilizers, hydroponics, hand pollination etc. Need not be very advanced technology, an ancient Chinese composting (not used in Europe, but much more productive) and access to manure could be a decisive factor.

Two days without food, and even the most civilized human being becomes a psychotic raider willing to kill for a piece of bread.

The only problem is that if the tribe is living near starvation, you hardly get physically powerful warriors - but that could be a racial difference. Even starved orangutan or neanderthal can rip an athletic Homo sapiens civilizatum in his prime in half.

(Alternately, the rare substance can be water (which the cities get from deep underground aquifers), Arrakis-like, but you run into logistic problems - water is difficult to carry in any reasonable quantities, a city needs to withstand the raid for 3 days and the attackers will be powerless or dead.)

  • $\begingroup$ "Two days without food, and even the most civilized human being becomes a psychotic raider willing to kill for a piece of bread." Citation, please. People no city sieges resisted for months, if properly motivated. Numantia inhabitants suicided rather than giving up. Sieges on castles would end quickly when the water supplies ran out. If food supplies run out, people will eat their shoe soles and resist a few days more.. $\endgroup$ Jan 12, 2018 at 10:09
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    $\begingroup$ @EnricNaval "city sieges resisted for months" Most of these cities had store houses full of food in reserve and rationed it. $\endgroup$
    – cybernard
    Jan 12, 2018 at 12:45

What deficiency would make my raiders the most desperate?

Can I interest you in some scurvy?

Vitamin C deficiency has some really bad symptoms like : fatigue, malaise, anemia, myalgia, bone pain, easy bruising, swelling, petechiae, gingivitis, perifollicular hemorrhages, corkscrew hairs, and poor wound healing. If left untreated, the disease can progress to jaundice, neuropathy, hemolysis, seizures, and death.

It is important and is not produced by the human body.

Your raiders have mutations that desperately require it because their mutations amplify the need for vitamin c, the desert is not known for high yield of fruits and vegetables and because vitamin C is needed to make collagen which is required for the health and repair of various tissues in the body, including: Skin, Bone, Cartilage, Ligaments and tendons, Blood vessel walls, Teeth.

Vitamin C is found in fruits and vegetables (smaller settlements will have these) however the more concentrated (intravenus and tablets) form is made by the more advanced chemical labs found in the cities you mention. Vitamin C has been found to help with radiation sickness

A Japanese study by Dr. Atsuo Yanagisawa showed that Vitamin C was helpful in protecting Fukushima workers from radiation induced DNA damage and reduced overall cancer risk.

So it stands to reason that vitamin C might be just what you are looking for!

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    $\begingroup$ Pine needles are also a source of vitamin C; pine trees might still exist at higher elevations or latitudes. You brew a tea with them. $\endgroup$ Jan 11, 2018 at 16:31
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    $\begingroup$ Edible cacti like nopales are good sources of vitamin C. If there were indigenous tribes in the deserts of OP's world, then they must have had access to all required nutrients. If the deserts were previously empty, this could be a reason. $\endgroup$ Jan 11, 2018 at 18:21


There is no shortage of accounts of desperate, withdrawing drunks who attack shops or people or do whatever is necessary to get a fix. No shortage of accounts of raiders who drink themselves stuporous after gaining access to a settlement with liquor. People who want liquor can act aggressive when they come for it. People who are used to drinking can go into alcohol withdrawls when they stop - these folks can get crazy aggressive and even psychotic with hallucinations. Very unfortunately there are alcoholic individuals who live this way and so your mutants could too.

My favorite account of this sort that I found is more fun because it is not about alcoholic humans, who are sick. These are events I can imagine happening with your mutants.


About 50 elephants had been drawn out of the jungle by the smell of the drink, according to the Times of India, and their first stop was a shop that sold the beverage. The elephants made quick work of the shop’s supply —18 containers of the drink, made from the nectar-rich flowers of the mahua tree.

Unwilling to let the party end there, the elephants began an aggressive search for more alcohol, raiding three houses near the shop before villagers were able to push them back into the jungle. Forestry officials then tried to get the elephants to cross a nearby river, the Daily Mail notes.

There have been several reported incidents of drunken elephants wreaking havoc in villages throughout the years.

In 2007, six wild elephants had to be electrocuted after they went crazy following a rice beer binge, according to the Associated Press. And in 2010, a herd of 70 inebriated elephants went on a rampage that destroyed villages and left three people dead, Time magazine reports.

  • $\begingroup$ Or morphine The problem is that a tribe controling some drug and having super-human knocking at the door would rather use the drug to control their new labour/fighting force $\endgroup$
    – Madlozoz
    Jan 12, 2018 at 8:56

Since you wanted symptoms that caused neurological problems, consider a sodium deficiency or Hyponatremia. You can tailor your mutants to have the more violent reactions like "Decreased ability to think, headaches, confusion" [From wikipedia]

The added benefit for you is that there plenty of human history wrapped up in the salt trade to draw upon for your story.

  • $\begingroup$ I think sodium deficiency is the best match for the neurological conditions that the OP wants, but is hard to believe it will be tough to find salt in the desert... $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Jan 11, 2018 at 14:00

Let me add two more options:

Option 1: Progeria, or the "good" farnesol deficiency

Real-world Progeria is a disease causing accelerated aging. Affected individuals typically live to their teens, perhaps early twenties. In the real world, known causes of the disease are genetic mutations causing a chemical group, called farnesyl, not correctly detaching from a protein, called progerin. The issue therefore being in the protein rather than in the farnesyl group.

In the fictional world, we can think of a similar mechanism. The protein will be alright, instead another genetic mutation causes normal "good" farnesyl to be slowly turned into "bad" or "sticky" farnesyl. Over time, the unstuck "sticky" farnesyl is degraded and eliminated. The body of the raiders has no way to fix the "bad" farnesyl on its own, hence they have to find external sources for "good" farnesyl.

Farnesol, which we will consider a precursor to farnesyl, is present in essential oils, and might even be addictive. The raiders need thus to search across a desert for fresh lemon-grass, boil it, extract the aromatic oils, cut them properly with other oils and reagents, and drink/inject/spread-on-bread on a very regular basis. All this not to whither like a mummy and live past their twenties. And the stuff is also addictive.

It seems quite a desperate life-style to me.

Option 2: garlic/onions/spices to cover their very pleasant body smell

There are some very unpleasant sand-flies that spread a disease called Leshmaniasis. Simply put, a genetic mutation causes the raiders to produce a (very pleasantly scented) pheromone in their sweat that attracts the mites. In order to cover it, they ingest garlic, onions, and spices. Regularly and in large quantities. I know this is not exactly a deficiency per se as asked by the OP, but it is still a mutation induced condition leading to a desperate life-style. The choice is between stinking or being covered in blood-curling ulcers.


Aboriginal Australians were more or less employed/enslaved by the white settlers who introduced them to opiates in exchange for manual labour, were it a different drug like cocaine this could very easily have lead to tribal raiders armed with stolen guns raiding the colonists when demand exceeded supply.


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