After the apocalypse wipes out good chunk of humanity with atomic fire, people begin to form their own communities. But, a tribe in the ruins of Los Angeles has not advanced their technology in half a millennium, even though they have the ability to do so if they tried hard enough. The tribe's people are hunter gatherers, who use stone tools and wear animal skins. My question is, what would be a logical motivation for them not to advance their technology in such a long time, even though they could?

What the world is like

The Los Angeles ruins are full of many animals like deer, so the tribe has abundant food, and water is not a problem. The biggest threat to them are the screamers, a race of mutant creatures that often eat humans. They are very isolated from the rest of the world. The only outsiders they interact with are the occasional wanderers.

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    $\begingroup$ I think you're looking at it backward. Cultures don't need to be motivated to not improve their technology, just like my cousin doesn't need motivation to sit on the couch and not get a job. Technological and living standard advances are due to a confluence of factors: Time, wealth, organization, knowledge management, luck, etc. Maybe this tribe was simply unlucky, or organized for a different goal, or was too busy fighting for survival against the screamers. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Feb 20 '18 at 1:07
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    $\begingroup$ "What the world is Like The Los Angeles ruins are full of many animals like deer ... and water is not a problem." You need to reread your geography book: LA is in a desert, and once the aqueducts dry up, it's gonna be harsh. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Feb 20 '18 at 3:22
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    $\begingroup$ OP: why are they so lethargic? They're from Los Angeles. @RonJohn It's not entirely desert. It wouldn't have been settled if it was. It just can't handle 10M++ people without a lot of tech. $\endgroup$ – Harper - Reinstate Monica Feb 20 '18 at 4:49
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    $\begingroup$ Leadership? I do remember reading a story recently where the leader of a large, powerful country decided to try and revitalise an industry based around fossil fuels instead of other, more technologically advanced renewable options... $\endgroup$ – Dark Hippo Feb 20 '18 at 8:50
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    $\begingroup$ As in the real world, a strong religion is reason #1 to stop any cultural or technological advance. $\endgroup$ – Holger Feb 20 '18 at 9:23

11 Answers 11


To me, it is not surprising at all that a tribe does not invent.

There are different kinds of advancement: perfecting and invention.

Perfecting: taking something that is used and making incremental improvements.

Invention: Creating something new to perform a new or old task.

It is likely that the tribe advances by perfecting current tools instead of inventing new ones. Thus, arrowheads would get better and better over time but they would still be the pointy ends of arrows. Most tribal cultures in the past had advanced this way until they were impacted by our "invention" culture.

Inventing, as we think of it, takes a pretty large population and free time. For every new thing that works there are hundreds that don't. A group that exists at a subsistence level just doesn't have the manpower or other resources to "waste" on inventing. In the early days, inventors were generally seen as fools and dreamers that were wasting time when there was real work to be done.

This was true in our own culture until recently. Just look at the British slang: Boffin.

Boffin is a British slang term for a scientist, engineer, or other person engaged in technical or scientific research and development. A "boffin" was generally viewed by the regular services as odd, quirky or peculiar, though quite bright and essential to helping in the war effort. The World War II conception of boffins as war-winning researchers lends the term a more positive connotation than related terms such as nerd, egghead, geek or spod.

It wasn't until WWII that the word started to get a positive connotation. That's not very long ago, all things considered.

  • $\begingroup$ I would think they would spend a lot of time and ingenuity on trying to come up with a way of dealing with these "screamers"... $\endgroup$ – colmde Feb 20 '18 at 10:01
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    $\begingroup$ The book "Earth Abides" has some interesting ideas on this. The protagonist, a survivor from before the apocalypse, tries to teach the younger generation (who were born after the apocalypse) about science and engineering, but many of them aren't interested, treat it like magic, and focus on unexpected things, unbiased by leftover ideas of civilisation. At one point he tries to teach them to make flint arrowheads; they tell him it's pointless because there are drawers of metal disks in all the ruins, and they make much better arrowheads. Turns out they're filing down coins to make sharp points. $\endgroup$ – anaximander Feb 20 '18 at 10:47
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    $\begingroup$ @colmde, so, while they are defending themselves from a deadly opponent and managing to scrape together enough food to survive, they are suppose to also start playing around with plant extracts and rocks to reinvent chemistry and physics? Science is the playground of people who have time on their hands. $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat Feb 20 '18 at 18:12
  • $\begingroup$ According to the OP, "the tribe has abundant food, and water is not a problem", besides, necessity is the mother of invention... $\endgroup$ – colmde Feb 21 '18 at 9:28
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    $\begingroup$ @colmde, you need to define abundant. To me it means that it can just support the population. Most populations grow until they max out the food supply and are just making it. If the screamer attacks are common enough to reduce the population, the people are spending all of their "free" time defending. $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat Feb 21 '18 at 17:53

Technological advancement requires a broad infrastructure and stability (along with motivation, etc). Also it takes some smart people and, historically, a profit. These folks in LA don't have extreme weather to contend with so much of the motivation for creating power sources and refinement is absent. No furnaces, no metal work. (By the way, "stone tools", really? seems like there would still be plenty of refined metal around.)
 You say they are isolated so no trading partners so no profit or other incentive to create trade goods.
  Okay, I'm stuck on the "stone tools" thing. Even over a millenia there would be plenty of refined metals around LA. You know they make more than movies there, right? And a blast would have buried much material and even books (from 20th century).

  LA is surrounded by desert (and cities in it) and things last a long time there. Not far away are clay ruins thousands of years old.   Even with some weird religion the threat from the Screamers would provoke them to using the best weapons they could. Without a Planet of the Apes virus scenario making people stupid as well as dumb you're gonna have Mad Max on steroids (LA number of cars and machines vs Australia). Are 90% of babies stillborn and this a ragtag team located...where?

It would have to be a tiny area surrounded by hills that they never ventured from or climbed a hill and saw the remnants of vast civilization. Sure there's plenty of spots in southern California like that but not with potable water and sufficient wildlife; the primary inhabitants before people and cars was geckos. The current sighting of deer in the area is because deer are large rodents on stilts that live off people's gardens and agriculture and especially humans killing off the large predators, their natural enemies. More likely to have an increasing amount of predators such as cougars not to mention all the wild dog packs that would be inevitable.

   I can go with no ability to form a manufacturing base due to instability because of Screamers and lack of trading partners, information and education due to their isolation. And most of human history, about 10,000:1 , is people not developing technologically. That they haven't done it in 500 years is nothing.

  The "cannibal" concept (accusation about the Screamers) is perhaps a good angle if they consider all meat to be cannibalism - perhaps a tenet formed after consuming tainted meat, perhaps because a memory of dogs as pets and since dogs are likely to be the most abundant wild animal in the area, this would preclude their consumption. Without another developed form of protein in their diet (and even bean growing takes somewhat advanced agriculture, irrigation - and cooking takes more tech, resources such as firecraft, wood, pottery) they would be mentally and physically stunted. Diet alone, especially after many generations, could explain the situation you desire.

  • $\begingroup$ All the metal and stuff was scavenged away by the screamers, but the tribes do have some metals $\endgroup$ – Bryan Feb 20 '18 at 1:16
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    $\begingroup$ I'm curious as to what the screamers are doing with the metal. If they're bright enough to scavenge useful materials, it doesn't sound like your neo-cavemen are the ones likely to advance. $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Feb 20 '18 at 17:56
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    $\begingroup$ @jdunlop - great point! maybe it's time for a more capable species/variant to emerge or maybe the Screamers are the more natural descendents and the neo-cavemen surf gangs are the mutants. And totally worth repeating "what are the screamers doing with the metal"? I'm beginning to think the whole "canibal" thing is propaganda by the cavemen-mental-zombies. Perhaps the screamers are adopting lost cavechildren and they just say "they'll eat you" to encourage conformity with their mediocrity. $\endgroup$ – Hebekiah Feb 21 '18 at 18:44

This has happened many times in human history. Advancing is done by a tiny minority of inventors who have the social power to make changes. The main demographic doesn't do anything. So plenty of societies never advanced for millenia outside their specialised way of life.

Hunter gatherers in Australia never advanced for possibly more than 50,000 years. There just wasn't a need and no one in power had that tiny spark of genius that led to agriculture elsewhere. Tribal societies are very different from democracies. People are usually tied by bloodlines to status. An inventor without status will be in trouble.

Another reason could be the elites suppress advancement for their own reasons and agendas as it will impact on their power and prestige, this happens right now almost everywhere in many fields.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure I'd say the Aborignal cultures never advanced. They had a very systematic way of gathering natural resources that approximated agriculture. What they didn't have were convenient beasts of burden to plow the fields and lead to large scale agriculture as it's normally understood. $\endgroup$ – atalasexp Feb 20 '18 at 5:29
  • $\begingroup$ @atalasexp actually they did, it's called humans (slavery)... many other places used them... South America has many examples, but plenty of others all over the World $\endgroup$ – Kilisi Feb 20 '18 at 9:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Kilisi - good point but slavery also requires food surplus which requires agricultural advancement and the (relatively) advanced weapons to control/threaten the enslaved. Agreed about the "spark" stuff. Also, written language helps much to build on ideas, spread and/or retain concepts. Interesting that there aren't (to my knowledge) petroglyphs explaining the design of a pump or other tech; stuff that deserved to be written in stone, anywhere in the world. New aboriginal research shows especially that Australia was much more arid than today, discouraging even basic agriculture, use for slaves $\endgroup$ – Hebekiah Feb 21 '18 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Hebekiah Australia is a big place, it never has been all arid. Plenty of kingdom size or larger areas that are totally suitable for agriculture particularly in the North. It is not all desert. And stone age people enslaved other stone age people with no difference in weapon tech throughout the South Pacific. $\endgroup$ – Kilisi Feb 21 '18 at 19:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Kilisi - I thought that too about Australian climate until (one example) sbs.com.au/yourlanguage/aboriginal/en/audiotrack/… . Evidence that aboriginal Australians arrived during a prolonged drought. I thought your original point about slavery was for them to be used in place of large animals for farms and public works; that doesn't exactly describe the practice of South Pacific slavery. $\endgroup$ – Hebekiah Feb 21 '18 at 20:16

Have you looked into the Amish community for parallels? Admittedly, they do so out of religious beliefs and not geopolitical ones. Still, I think you could also make an argument that if some sectors of an older economy/civilization were wiped out due to some sort of scarcity, then there also might be a motivation or a value in limiting resources for newer technology.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 - I´d also go further and say: If the old civilization was wiped out specifically by high technology, a religion forbidding advancement is only logical. $\endgroup$ – Daniel Feb 20 '18 at 15:56
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    $\begingroup$ Amish and similar communities live within a greater society of resources and disaster mitigation. Without flood, disease and pest control, access to already mined and processed metals and other materials (like cloth) they couldn't live at the level they do. They also enjoy protection from invaders by the larger society. If they had to devote their resources to military as well as mining, smelting, cotton growing, dam building, etc, etc, they'd be more like OP's cavemen or early Irish. Mormons might be a better example though they enjoyed a much reduced indigenous population to contend with. $\endgroup$ – Hebekiah Feb 21 '18 at 20:29

Technological advancement tends to be motivated by conditions at the time. If life is harsh, people will come up with new inventions to make life easier, if life is nice and cozy, then they will not be motivated. But the situation you've provided is most certainly not friendly. So I'm not sure what could motivate them, you'll need more answers for that.

  • One possibility is that all the radiation fried their genes and what we're seeing is the origin of a new subspecies that has lost some of its ancestors' cognitive faculty. Perhaps they really aren't able to advance their technology.

  • Another possibility is that this polity has made a conscious choice not to seek after the technologies of the Old World. The surface primitivity might lend itself to small highly reserved and traditional groups of people who have come to view any technology more advanced than stone tools as a work of evil demons that wish only to burn the Earth a second time. Their myths and religions and social mores will be sufficient to the task. I guess unless you plan on introducing a more advanced tribe to their environment?

  • A third possibility, though may not fit so well with the hunter-gatherer motif you're working on, is that of the cloistered monastery. With the outside world in chaos, they might decide that ancient learning & technology are worth preserving, but not worth improving upon.


maybe they have a tribal memory* that it was technology that caused the apocalypse, so they have all forsworn technology, and people who try get punished by death. (and food and water are easy to come by so no necessity to change as explained by other respondents).

EDIT * By tribal memory I mean the survivors of this society decided that technology was to blame, if it hadn't been for technology we wouldn't be in this state. So stories were told to the first children, and grandchildren highlighting this side of the story. It became a verbal history that all our current problems were caused by technology, as always happens over time the stories grow and change and get bigger. But all end with the same moral: 'we shall never go down that route again'.

A real world example is some people think that Noah's flood is a retelling of the Nile delta floods in Egypt, which got expanded to be the whole world flooding, and it got converted into a retribution story for our evil.

To bring this back to my idea the apocalypse is the retribution for all the evil technology, so we must never go there again.

  • $\begingroup$ Could you flesh it out a bit? it's rather short for an answer. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Feb 20 '18 at 9:41
  • $\begingroup$ yes but it isn't asking for clarification, so not suitable for a comment either. I don't have anything to add that isn't just more words saying the same thing again. $\endgroup$ – WendyG Feb 20 '18 at 10:43
  • $\begingroup$ Some explanation how tribal memory actually works, how it would be enforced against more adventurous souls etc would help. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Feb 20 '18 at 10:45
  • $\begingroup$ I have said people who try get punished by death. I went to google tribal memory to post a link, and it seems i have the wrong name for it. or it isn't as commonly understood theory as i thought $\endgroup$ – WendyG Feb 20 '18 at 10:53
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    $\begingroup$ That's because it's called myth or folklore, not tribal memory (I understand what you mean but already have good words for it). Any such groups that are remembered or live currently do so around or within more advanced societies or (a small number) within small pockets of tropical areas with abundant food and water. Amish, et al, live within a region where flooding, disease, etc, are mitigated otherwise they may have disappeared long ago - roll of the dice. They also function with a tech level higher than this author (the OP) has set for his protagonists. But you gave me some ideas, thanks. $\endgroup$ – Hebekiah Feb 21 '18 at 19:08

The more important question is not why they didn't choose to advance their technology. There are people like the Amish who do so today for a variety of religious and philosophical reasons. It it is a common trope that people reject technology after getting a bad taste in their mouth from excess technology use in the past leading to bad results. Both Frank Herbert's Dune series and the Star Wars series utilize similar tropes for rejecting certain kinds of technologies that were once common.

The harder question, instead, is how they would manage to survive fifty years when other people are using advanced technology and they are not, in a situation where there is no state or a failed state with warlords.

Realistically, they'd either need a patron of some kind, perhaps serving as a tributary defeated tribe of a more advanced tribe that protects them, or nobody is challenging them because they fear that they will be infected or harmed somehow by coming into contact with them.

  • $\begingroup$ but he didn't say the "Screamers" were technologically advanced, just nasty $\endgroup$ – Hebekiah Feb 20 '18 at 0:14
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    $\begingroup$ @Hebekiah I not thinking about the "Screamers", I'm thinking about conquest at the hands of their human neighbors over in Orange County or Santa Monica. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Feb 20 '18 at 0:18
  • $\begingroup$ The people in those towns are tribes too. They broke off from the main Los Angeles tribe $\endgroup$ – Bryan Feb 20 '18 at 0:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Bryan It is definitely harder to explain why all humans would reject technology in the absence of a strong state than it is to explain how one particular tribe would do so. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Feb 20 '18 at 0:24
  • $\begingroup$ @ohwilleke, it's not that difficult to imagine that the break off tribes would have similar outlooks if they disagreed with something else. Just look at the different Christian faiths. Also, it seems appropriate that the Santa Monica tribe is to the left of L.A. and the Orange County tribe is to the right of it. $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat Feb 20 '18 at 0:36

In general, technology advances at a rate proportional to the number of people times the stability of the society times the wealth surplus times competition.

The stability of the society permits records of what was invented to stay around.

The wealth surplus is required to give people time to invent. If you are spending every ounce of effort just staying afloat, you don't invent revolutionary things.

The number of people reflects the fact that a new invention pays off for everyone but only has to be perfected once.

Competition reflects the fact that an overly stable centralized society can ossify without competing power centers. With competing power centers, innovation can give one of them an advantage and failing to take up the new innovation causes that one to replace the others.

This reflects our own history. A long time of glacially slow "technological advancement" with little surplus and low populations. Technology would advance during stable times, and retreat during collapses.

10000 or so years ago agricuture and settlements increase stability and surplus. The rate of change increases slightly. Writing is invented, allowing information to pass from generation to generation with less cost.

We see the rise of megacultures, like the Egyptians, and the various farming communities. Amazing technologies, sometimes biological (crops and animals) are developed.

Population numbers increase. Empires rise and fall, progress goes 3 steps forward and 2 steps back.

History begins, in that narrative stories come down from the next age of history (and not just tax documents/royal proclamations/etc). At this point we have a number of high population density settled peoples and a myriad of nomadic people's.

Population densities grow. Logistics of empire (a form of technology) gets better, and larger empires form. Some societies manage centuries of stability. Dark ages still come and go.

Then the "age of exploration" -- which might better be called the age of global connection. Direct trade routes that wrap the world bring innovations from the entire world to the entire world. European states compete without destroying each other by conquoring the world instead of each other. Populations swell. Growth and innovation accellerate.

Then things change again. The industrial revolution begins in Great Britian. The world's raw resources flow into the new industrial state. Trade networks continue to strengthen. Private competition within the state becomes a possibility, permitting a society with both stability and intense competition between power centers.

In short, what you imagine as a reasonable pace of change requires a huge amount of support. A small tribe of people won't be able to manage that level of change, and even if they knew how wouldn't be able to build an industrial civilization because they lack the people to maintain it.

Small, isolated populations don't rapidly change without falling apart.

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    $\begingroup$ Yakk - excellent. Would add that the "Private competition" was state sponsored, East India Company being a crown chartered corporation, reaffirming only possible with a large tax base and thorough gov't as pricing, profit was regulated in exchange for monopoly. Consumption also controlled throu level of taxation and colonies not only for raw materials but to dump excess product. Very much appreciate the line about written language allowing information to be handed down "at lower cost" than oral tradition. That is a big idea I'll remember; the economics of information in primitive culture. $\endgroup$ – Hebekiah Feb 21 '18 at 20:09

What's the point?

In fact, European travellers to Shaka's kingdom demonstrated advanced technology such as firearms and writing, but the Zulu monarch was less than convinced. There was no need to record messages, he held, since his messengers stood under penalty of death should they bear inaccurate tidings. As for firearms, Shaka acknowledged their utility as missile weapons after seeing muzzle-loaders demonstrated, but he argued that in the time a gunman took to reload, he would be swamped by charging spear-wielding warriors. - Source

Of course he was wrong, and it turned out the only way to win against gunmen was to outnumber them 10 to 1 and give the gunmen an incompetent commander - and that "win" still inflicted equal losses on both sides. Still this was his belief when shown the technologies.

The question isn't why they wouldn't advance technology, because that's the default option - the question is why would they advance technology?

Most technology requires a significant investment, and the payoff is not obvious until it reaches a tipping point. Reading and writing requires multiple people who learn reading and writing, and who teach others to read and write. But what does it allow you to do that you can't do already, unless you make massive changes to society with a unpredictable outcome? The wheel is pretty pointless if you can easily drag things on a travois, which is so much easier to build and doesn't need all the maintenance. Why dig coal and ore then build smelters and forges, all in order to fashion fancy tools - when you can make any tool you need within a single hour?

Many technological advances only have a payoff when you have trade, which requires a large enough population - at least a small city, better multiple cities with trade routes in between. Once you sell tools, and people buy your tools instead of making their own, there is an actual advantage in making better tools than your competition.


I think the most probable reason they have not advanced their technology is because they are not in competition with other tribes and because as you have specified they are a tribal society and because they have not had trouble in meeting their society's needs using their antiquated technologies.
European nations developed their technologies largely as a result of being at war and competing with each other over land disputes. In contrast, the native Americans were not advancing their technologies due to abundant resources and much less disputes with other tribes.

  • $\begingroup$ I think Europe was more crippled by constant war - more tech developed prior to internecine religious war (Scandinavians especially) and after (Gutenberg, etc). Outside trade had more to do with it - and then, yes, eagerly adopted for military advantage. Don't know where you get your info on native Americans; not true. Much dispute and much development but also more natural catastrophe like drought forcing them to scale back or move. Anasazi and eastern Plains tribes with advanced culture and bone analysis showing they were tallest, most healthy, well fed people in the world of their time. $\endgroup$ – Hebekiah Feb 21 '18 at 19:57
  • $\begingroup$ Read this: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plains_Indians $\endgroup$ – Hebekiah Feb 21 '18 at 19:59

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