I'm sandboxing a question about a post-apocalyptic setting similar to Horizon: Zero Dawn (in which the achievements of modern/futuristic man are seen as magic by their hunter-gatherer descendants), and I'm not sure you can send a civilization back that far. This answer, regarding conventional warfare, leads me to believe that resetting the sum total of human knowledge is very difficult because skills like communicating over large distances without shouting or accurately tracking who owes what to who are too useful to just forget wholesale. It might be too ambitious to send civilization back to the stone age (especially since I don't have the "We forgot to teach the clones about the last 10,000 years of human history" plot detail from Horizon), and I'm willing to let them have a few conveniences, but I want life as a whole to be rough. A few key points;

  • Starting Tech Level - Modern day (give or take a hundred years, but let's say modern day)
  • Cause of Apocalypse - Dragons† - potentially (they're the biggest cap on how big this end civilization can grow)
  • Days Since Last Apocalypse - 7,259,430 (or about 2,000 years)
  • Reading & Writing - Yes, but the old language is indecipherable nowadays (don't think this will be a problem, but doesn't hurt to check)
  • Metallurgy - Bronze? Maybe iron? (I don't know how difficult iron ore is to find or smelt)
  • Villages - Yes
  • Settlements Larger Than a Village - We call those "Dragon Traps."
  • Agriculture - Animals are domesticated for both food products and mechanical power. Fields produce enough food to be preserved and traded within the village.
  • Trade With Other Villages - Bit difficult because of the dragons - infrastructure tends not to last very long, and caravans can just disappear never to be seen again, but it does happen fairly regularly.
  • Mechanical Advantage - Wheels, levers, and pulleys are all known and used - even if the math isn't 100% clear. Gears...are too precise to manufacture.
  • Electronics - Save for some plot-important artifacts, long since rusted away.

Is it possible to send a modern civilization back to this tech level - and kind of keep them there - for this long? I'm counting on the fact that the dragons are stifling trade and keeping large cities from forming to stop scientific development.

† Dragons, in this context, are 18-wheeler-sized lizards. At least some of them have wings usable for powered flight, and at least some of them can breathe fire.

  • $\begingroup$ We occasionally get questions like this, where the "backstory" appears to be so important that impossible or nearly impossible conditions require rational explanation. Are you sure you need the rationalization? The reality is that it would be impossible (or nearly impossible) to achieve this goal. So many would have to die. So much stuff would have to be destroyed. The dragons would have to be constantly harrassing people - as in nothing bigger than a fishing village can form (say, 100 people). It's hard to imagine the thoroughness of such an apocalypse. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Apr 23, 2018 at 4:33
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH I mean, not really. I was sorta seeing how feasible this was. Sounds like the answer is "as much as I the writer deem so." This is happening far enough back that I don't have to justify it to the readers. $\endgroup$
    – chif-ii
    Apr 23, 2018 at 4:41
  • $\begingroup$ Then I wouldn't. I'm a huge fan of backstory, but this would be too hard to believably explain. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Apr 23, 2018 at 5:05
  • $\begingroup$ There is no turning time back, no matter what way. You can't erase collective mind of humanity. We didn't lost ancient Latin. Why would we ever lost English? Gears aren't hard to manufacture. Basic steam engine is quite easy, too. And iron ore would be trivial to find and smelt. It's called "rusted stuff" and it will be just lying around. $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Apr 23, 2018 at 7:27
  • $\begingroup$ Are the dragons in your world: alien, artificially created by man's folly or natural but previously dormant? I'm assuming no 'magic'? $\endgroup$ Apr 23, 2018 at 7:32

4 Answers 4


Working with iron actually requires a LOT of effort and knowledge. Most people really underestimate the technological knowledge poeple had in the past. If you google around for a while about backyard metal casting (it's an actual hobby), casting iron is rather hard. If people were able to survive well enough to have any kind of metallurgical tech that's not about using scraps leftover from the prevoius era to make crude tools, then they are more than able to kill your dragons. It requires such a civilizational momentum, that if humans are able to reach it, they are already the de facto apex predator on the planet. And that is if they truly were sent back to technological square one by the dragons. See, you have a problem here. The dragons were able to defeat modern, 7 billion strong human civilization, with all it's jet fighters, missiles, tanks, chemical and biological weapons. But somehow, not completely wiping us from the face of the planet (bar a few people hiding out in some bunker somewhere), but we were able to survive in large enough numbers, and with a predictable enough success, that we can form villages, do meaningful agriculture, trade and such "civilisationally intensive" things as ironworking etc., all with (pre?)medieval tech. You can't have both. Either civilisation survived the arrival of the dragons in a meaningful way, or humans went practically extinct.

Also: gears are well in range for your civilization. Just look up old wind and water mills and old mechanical clocks, the large ones in towers. Gears have been around for many hundred years.


I'm going to be contrary and say yes.

I don't know how your dragons entered this world or how your actual apocalypse event sequence plays out. I'm giving a solution that I think can help out in many scenarios with a little tweaking here and there.

tl/dr I believe you will have to create an apocolyptic scenario that destroys infrastructure and the ability to rebuild and creates an environment where knowledge is lost, rapidly!

When the dragons first arrive on the scene they find a world rich in electricity and iron based infrastructure. Iron just so happens to increase their fertility/breeding capabilities. Soon your world is overrun by large numbers of dragons, mostly juveniles.

Iron does something to the dragon physiology and increases the ability to lay eggs. Lots of eggs. All over the place. Dragons crave the iron and scavenge it from everywhere they can find. They demolish alot of infrastructure creating their nests/creating iron hoards/ etc.

Juvenile dragons have a really bad habit of burping electromagnetic pulses (EMPs). This could be coupled with larger electromagnetic pulses being released when the dragon eggs break. (However you want, just make sure to destroy the ability to communicate over distance and share electrical knowledge.)

This fries all nearby electric circuitry. You can have these pulses what ever size you want but as there are a lot of eggs laying around in the cities and highly developed parts of the countries around the world, these areas soon loose all electrical power and most of their infrastructure.

  • So what, that doesn't stop people from learning!

Well, most of the knowledge is now locked up on the dead internet and fried computer circuitry. Actual physical libraries (those that remain, there has been a general trend of closing book libraries the last few years) are nearly always going to have some sort of electrical and iron components in them ie temperature control systems/shelving/overhead lighting/ stools. The dragons destroyed the buildings when they went after the iron and steel in the walls and possibly even burnt all the books at the same time.

  • But you don't want a "current day" story world so overrun with dragons?

Once the easily located iron has been found and used up, the dragons fertility/egg laying spree decreases to a more natural balance. This allows for lower dragon numbers over time.

The large mass of juvenile dragons can be very territorial/agitated/what ever your story has already deemed. Too many juveniles in the same area could result in fights to the death. Lots of buildings demolished, lots of fields and forests ravaged, lots of electromagnetic pulses released etc. Eventually the dragon numbers diminish and the dragons reach a more harmonous balance with each other/environment.

  • but I need some electrical artefacts to survive!

You can make the dragon's iron/metal sensing capabilities be as sensitive as you require. Maybe they can't sense lone items unless they are right on top of them. Maybe they are sensing the accumulated iron artefacts. So a single item or two that is well hidden could survive. This will allow your survives to keep their steel and metal knifes/carabiners/belt buckles/retainers/fillings/hip replacements etc.

Coupled with later dimished dragon numbers this also allows for some very well hidden artefacts (faraday cage protected) and forgotten artifacts to survive without the constant threat of a juvenile dragon or exploding egg to release an electromagnetic pulse in your current story world. While at the same time preventing major rebuilding of electrical infrastructure in the past.

  • what about the people hoarding books and equipment?

Well, when the military and doomsday survivors first started building their concrete bunkers with lots of steel reinforcements they weren't planning on the dragon apocalypse. After the first few electromagnetic pulses went off in the cities across the world, they went to their standard plan book. They retreated to their bunkers. They also in their wisdom gathered up all the smartest people they could find and tried to save as many books and artifacts that they thought would be useful. When the dragons came...everything went up in smoke. There goes the military and all the smartest people...and the people mostly well prepared to survive.

  • So where did people hide to survive?

Those that managed to get out of the cities and developed town areas, scattered into family units and occasionally coalesced into some gang like tribes (standard post apocalypse setting). Only/mostly those that avoided relying on iron survived. Most that survived ended up holing up in natural cave systems. Just barely surviving. Eeking a subsistence farming lifestyle if lucky. Hunter/gather style mostly.

  • Many of these groups know how to read and write. Why would that be lost?

Why not. Story based logic can explain why survival groups wouldn't have the time or resources to waste on an old-world skill. Besides, not alot of survives grabbed any books when they ran for it. Most of them grabbed their smartphones and chargers. Nice pretty paperweights now.

You can use any logic you find explainable how they lost/regained the ability to read. It probably won't be lost immediately, more like a few generations. But it will definitely be a skill most likely to be put aside by the more "macho, I'm too busy hunting for your food to take the time to learn to read...well". The ability to mine and extract, and even work, new iron would probably have to be refound altogether. Blacksmiths are a dying breed today and most who know how to extract iron probably died in the mines and extraction plants that the dragons tore apart.

After that, it's up to your story how they regain their knowledge. Find a few books that they can no longer read here and there. By then their language has probably shifted into a polygot of any languages that made up their original survivor groups. Each group having a unique language/dialect etc. With a few iron artefacts that survived the iron craze of the early dragon arrival. Etc.

So iron/metal sensitive dragons. Some sort of increased fertility that decreases after an initial explosion in drsgon population numbers. An iron craze leading to destruction of physical infrastructure (and physical libraries) and a loss of easily reusable iron in later years. Electromagnetic pulses of some origin, destroying communications and digital libraries. Continued electromagnetic pulses preventing rebuilding of technology while knowledge is still known. Mass casualties of untold numbers. Post apocalypse survival scenarios of your choice.


From my point of view: NO

You cannot have 2000 years and written materials that are not readable. It took us less than year to decipher Rosetta Stone. And we started from high G. Now we have all the children books, picture dictionaries, and all learning materials.

My opinion is that any apocalypse that don't end in total annihilation will set us the most to the brink of industrialization. With the set that we don't have the tech but we have knowledge.

And with constant attacks from dragon you may not be able to move past that point. So maybe small steam engines but nothing producing large smoke or requiring not usual fuel.

You can resolve the military problem by the fact that our modern weapons didn't do harm to them so there is no point in recreating existing weapons and relaying more on survival ones.

Have in mind that, in Europe, what mark the end of iron age and new era is not technological breakthrough but historical event. Apart from some art styles there is very little difference between 900 AD and 1800. The architecture, building styles are outcome of energy and material efficiency.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Agree with the fact that knwoledge can't be forgotten easily, but not with the last paragraph, siciety, warfare and a lot of things were different between 900 AD and 1800. $\endgroup$
    – Kepotx
    Apr 23, 2018 at 8:34
  • $\begingroup$ Theoretically yes. If you take Africa or Americas there is a large difference. But if you look at Japan, China or Europe you see it was just development. Warfare is just a by-product of weapons. And in X century China used gunpowder. Society didn't changed that much. You still had lords, kings and serfs. We made some medical discoveries thanks to Renaissance but not until XIX century the better medic kick in. $\endgroup$ Apr 23, 2018 at 8:39

To come down with knowledge, I suggest a social approach: religion, an authoritarian cult personality or any number of strategies can put a taboo on education, and in a world that is in disarray (more on that in a moment), I think it's credible that this should do the trick.

On the disarray strategy, I suggest climate change compounded with your dragons. Say in the next decades we come up with an awesome carbon sink technology, and as a consequence we confidently and wildly overshoot our carbon budget while we argue on the best timeline to fix the climate, knowing that the solution is at hand. Then dragons strike, and:

  • their destruction of large cities annihilates our possibility to put the carbon sink technology in place, meaning the intense climate change we put in place gets to stay (putting too many of our coastal cities & critical infrastructures in danger)
  • the dragon fires also take out a significant chunk of our forests, and perhaps also set our coal mines on fire and in general a number of persistent natural fires, which could accelerate things

I'd say that should be enough to bring us big enough problems that, compounded with a little social stupidity (say a few intense wars, giving it all we got) it could allow us to do a large leap backwards.


Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .