In my story I have an every-man, lets call him Jim.

Jim never finished high school, works as a night guard, and spends his time drinking beer, watching TV, surfing the internet and hanging out with his buddies.

He is mysteriously transported into the paleolithic age, and accepted by a tribe as a curiosity. He doesn't have any of his technological tools with him, only his clothes.

Assuming that Jim has a lot of knowledge of technologies that could be useful to his new fellow tribesman, such as bow and arrow, hide shields, metallurgy, farming etc. But he never tried to actually use any of them, his knowledge is merely theoretical from watching history documentaries and reading on the internet.

What kind of things could Jim teach them, or help them develop together?

The tribe technology is at later stone age level, they have wooden spears, fire, sewing tools, fish hooks.


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    $\begingroup$ Is this going to be ready to use technology (like the idea of sanitation), or Jim can spend time recreating it (like metallurgy)? $\endgroup$ – Alexander May 24 '18 at 21:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander Jim and fellow tribe folk could spend some time researching, since there's not much else to do for fun, but it should be something plausible. They are not Bell labs, and Jim is not a scientist thus he expects things that would bring some benefit sooner rather then later. He would like to have evaporative cooler but not if it takes years to make damn thing work. $\endgroup$ – The Dude May 24 '18 at 21:48
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    $\begingroup$ Since he would be helpless, lacking the fundamental skills of spear or fire drill, he would be unable to even feed himself, Until he earns some credibility, he's more likely to be treated as that funny outsider, if not tossed or as a burden to the tribe. $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy May 24 '18 at 23:27
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    $\begingroup$ Not enough for a full answer, but basic math (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) might be useful somehow. I remember that from Clan of the Cave Bear. $\endgroup$ – BrettFromLA May 25 '18 at 0:30
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    $\begingroup$ Writing. Hands down. He won't have to teach so much as demonstrate, and he'll feel almost compelled to use it, being of our time. They may not fully adopt an alphabet, they would quickly recognize the essential concept. $\endgroup$ – Anthony May 25 '18 at 3:38

Supposing that he can gain enough credit with the tribe, he can probably try and domesticate animals such as horses, if any are available in the area (dogs are probably out of the question in the short period - I think?), or cultivate something, since he knows it's possible.

As @John pointed out, fired pottery is a possibility, if they don't already know.

This, by the way, is Jim's only real advantage - he knows that some things are possible. He might try and build levers and wheeled carts. Very soon he'll try some way of getting to metallurgy, but with little chance of success as he doesn't know which ores which metals come from, or how to smelt them.

In short, he can probably boost the tribe through the whole Mesolithic and bring it to a late Neolithic level. I doubt he is in position to do more, or has the time.

If he gets set in as a sort of archpriest, he might have some "magic" available: smoking (it was effective in Roman days), or being able to "remember" anything for arbitrary periods after making funny scratches with charcoal on a stone wall. With time, he might start something similar to the Druidic religion.

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    $\begingroup$ I feel domestication is a long term project. What could be quick wins to gain that credibility? $\endgroup$ – The Dude May 24 '18 at 22:30
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    $\begingroup$ Carts or travoises... or maybe the discovery of fermentation to get his beloved beer. Possibly the use of pulleys to lift weights? It is also entirely possible that Jim, coming from a well-fed, sanitized life, is in much better physical condition than the tribespeople, and can get himself elected leader or archpriest. $\endgroup$ – LSerni May 24 '18 at 22:45
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    $\begingroup$ Jim might consider taming and herding some kind of proto-chicken or other suitable fowl. (Wing clippage will keep the little buggers local. And he can show them how to collect and boil eggs. Hey, presto! Agricultural revolution on the horizon!) Teach the young boys the basics of soccer or hurling; teach the old men how to render mammoth fat and invite em all over for wings and beer, and they can all kick back and watch some Friday Night Wide World of Sports! $\endgroup$ – elemtilas May 25 '18 at 0:38
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    $\begingroup$ Horse domestication came from a very small patch of the world unlike domestication of the wolf which happened on three separate occasions/places. Alcohol production, tho! This could be amazing! There is actually a credible hypothesis in archaeology that the shift from hunting-gathering with small scale horticulture to large-scale agriculture was because of the discovery of alcohol, as there was still plenty of food without having massive fields. Suddenly this has gone from "meh, another time-travel story" to, "Oh, now that could go a number of interesting directions." $\endgroup$ – Rubellite Fae May 25 '18 at 2:54
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    $\begingroup$ It would explain Somerset. $\endgroup$ – Ruadhan May 25 '18 at 8:43

By far the most important thing Jim can teach them is modern notions of sanitation. He will likely teach them some by example, i.e. the see him wash his hands before eating or after going to the nearest bush to relieve himself. He himself will have some notions like digging a hole to use as a bathroom receptacle, and of course the importance of never relieving yourself near a stream (or at least doing your business downstream of where people gather drinking water). Just getting them to have the latrine pit a good distance away from the camp site is probably a huge life saver.

Advancing that knowledge to cleaning wounds with water, cleansing their mouths with primitive tooth brushes (peeling away the ends of twigs into a sort of brush), washing foods before eating and so on will make them more resistant to diseases, and able to carry on day to day living longer than rival tribes (having your teeth is a huge advantage in this environment).

If he knows standard first aid and can improvise bandages and slings or teach the healer/shaman what to do, then the sorts of injuries that people in this environment are prone to can be treated more easily, and people brought back into the productive life of the tribe as well.

Jim will also need to be a quick study, because the tribe might want to keep him as a curiosity, but unless he is handy at doing things like making rope and nets, or can quickly pick up hunting with paleolithic tools and techniques (and trust me, no one from the modern age will hold a candle to these people), he will simply be a burden to the tribe, and they will likely leave him behind as he consumes far more than he provides.

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    $\begingroup$ hunter-gathers have half decent sanitation it is the advent of agriculture and more sessile living that brings it down, he can improve it but not by much. Also toothbrushes are not that important prior to the invention of refines sugars. $\endgroup$ – John May 25 '18 at 1:37
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    $\begingroup$ Bows actually require a detailed knowledge of wood (English yew longbows use the differential properties between heartwood and sapwood for their power, for example), while something like an Atlatl isn't obvious for someone like Jim. Indeed Jim might know just enough to be dangerous rather than helpful... $\endgroup$ – Thucydides May 25 '18 at 1:59
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    $\begingroup$ @TheDude hunter-gatherers had tens of thousands of years to improve their hunting & gathering. Some invented bows, others atlatls (more common than you'd think), others boomerangs. I wouldn't focus on how he could revolutionize hunting & gathering. He could offer slight improvements to this lifestyle—tho history has shown us that even with the best intentions, when white people tell native how to do something "better" it never ends up better for them—or, and perhaps more interestingly, he could start them down the path of civilization. So, the key is learning what enabled such a transition: $\endgroup$ – Rubellite Fae May 25 '18 at 3:01
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    $\begingroup$ ever. Long before they were used for carts and chariots, wheels were used to throw pottery. So, then you not only have more than enough storage, you can start bartering them as well as grains. Another big invention is tallying. Certainly tally marks long predate civilization, but tally marks used for keeping barter records on clay tablets led quickly to receipts, writing, maths, record keeping of the sky and thus astronomy/astrology, written laws, etc. One terrible thing which comes with civilization (large population densities) is disease. His knowledge of sanitation could prevent epidemics $\endgroup$ – Rubellite Fae May 25 '18 at 3:15
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    $\begingroup$ May want to update to somehow sanitize the wound-cleaning water first. Otherwise this is not a good plan. $\endgroup$ – fectin May 25 '18 at 12:20

Writing and Mathematics

Yes, these are technologies! Even if Jim hasn't finished high school, he should certainly be able to teach basic arithmetic. (Depending on his skill level, Jim might be able to teach more advanced mathematics, but it might not have many applications for a paleolithic society.) Developing a writing system for the tribe's language from scratch will be difficult, but possible, especially if he has a good grasp on language. Alternatively, he doesn't need to come up with a new writing system if he can teach the tribe his own native language.

Written communication is useful anywhere that accurate memorisation would otherwise be needed- long-distance communication, complicated instructions, or recording stories are just a few examples that could be relevant to paleolithic societies. Understanding simple mathematics is also handy for calculating distances, measuring time, and so on.

On their own, these technologies are useful but not game-changing. But, they make learning many other technologies significantly easier.

(Side note: this answer depends on the assumption that the tribe doesn't have these things already. I believe it is unclear how developed mathematics and writing were in the paleolithic.)

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    $\begingroup$ Developing a writing system and learning advanced mathematics takes a lot of time and effort. Why is it worth it? What need does a paleolithic tribe have for a formal writing system (use of basic tally marks and cave paintings are already old by then)? What need do they have for formal mathematics (presuming complete innumeracy inappropriately belittles ancient peoples)? Presuming of course that this guy even has a better grasp of mathematics than the tribe he encounters (which could be a dubious assumption - I encounter plenty of people who cannot even do simple math without a calculator). $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi May 25 '18 at 13:44
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    $\begingroup$ Writing and math are good for supporting ownership and planning, but hunter-gatherers generally use lore and consensus pretty effectively for that on the scales the live. $\endgroup$ – user25818 May 25 '18 at 16:15

There are a lot of things that Jim knows, but not well enough to be useful. For example, I doubt he knows enough about sewing to teach his new tribe the advantages of tailored clothing -- Jim has always gotten his clothes from the store, and is unlikely to know how to knit or crochet well enough to produce useful objects, especially if he can't also spin his own fibers. Badly tailored clothing will not impress people.

Jim knows how to read and write, but once he learns his new tribe's language he may find that their needs for information retention and transfer are sufficiently well met by memorization. Sequoyah invented Cherokee writing in an environment that already had great complexity and sophistication, and cuneiform appears to have been invented by accountants.

Probably his most useful knowledge is going to be basic public health -- not just sanitation and hygiene, but also things like vitamins. (Good luck figuring out which veggies have vitamin A and which have vitamin C, though.). Primitive cultures generally have food taboos that cover the most important cases.

Agriculture is harder than it looks -- domesticating crops without lots of experience to know about pollinators, growing cycles, and soil needs will take a lot of trial and error. (This will be a lot easier if Jim can talk some locals into helping him.)

So what is likely to come in handy?

  • simple machines like the pulley
  • storytelling. Even if you filter out cultural specificity, he knows a thousand hoary old stories that are suddenly fresh and new again
  • -
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    $\begingroup$ How good is Jim with languages? Given he's past his formative years, (when learning a language is thought to be much easier) he may not be able to "speak" the language in a reasonable time. I guess he has till winter to prove his worth, and without that he is simply deadweight over the cold period. $\endgroup$ – Criggie May 25 '18 at 11:44

There are SO MANY things that he could bring it is difficult to make a complete list.

Moving objects:

  • Levers: it is very very simple, he knows how to do them, and it is very useful for building and moving heavy loads

  • Slide (meaning, sliding loads on round wooden pikes): easier ot move heavy loads

  • The WHEEL! Not only useful for making a cart, but also other more advanced technologies (see below)

Food. He knows nothing about practical agriculture, and about growing things but...

  • He knows what is a plowshare and how effective it can be for farming efficiently (you can combine with the wheel of course)

  • Storing food efficiently (drying is known, but what about salt? He probably knows how to gather salt - it works only for coastal areas of course) And what about smoking meat and fish, maybe it is not known at this stage.

  • Irrigation (with the help of the wheel and archimedes screw or noria to bring water from river)


  • I suppose he knows what is a cornerstone and how to build a arch

  • He knows how to break stone with wood and water, in order to produce regular stones for construction

  • He knows basic geometry to compute in advance the dimensions of buildings and the amount of materials needed

  • He knows balance of force principles in order to make things stable

Energy, the wheel is back again:

  • Grinding wheat and other cereals

  • Bringing water from river or from a WELL!


  • He knows that boiling water is a sure way of getting clean water

  • Cleaning wounds with (very) hot stone or metal part


  • He knows metallurgy is possible, but finding the key ore and how to make it work is much trickier

  • Bricks and other fired clays objects: easier to find raw material and to fine tune process to get usable end material


  • Carts if you have oxens or horses

  • Ships on rivers or sea: difficult to perfect, but can boost local production with what he knows is possible, such as latin sail, rudder etc.


With time and if needed (in order to track things such as debts, reserves etc.), he can also introduce basic writing and mathematics.

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    $\begingroup$ You're giving Jim a lot of credit for someone who never finished school and doesn't seem to do much of anything creative, judging by the question $\endgroup$ – colmde May 25 '18 at 8:45
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    $\begingroup$ @colmde I think even looking at cartoons and movies nowadays is almost enough to get most of what I wrote. Perhaps the noria, ship building and complex constructions are difficult to pull off. $\endgroup$ – Martigan May 25 '18 at 8:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Martigan I agree with colmde regarding the construction specifically. Other than that as Jim knows these things are possible he can expect to get things right within a few months of trying most of them. $\endgroup$ – Korthalion May 25 '18 at 10:08
  • $\begingroup$ What good are wheels without roads? Investing in learning how to build a cart isn't necessarily a good idea (Jim isn't a carpenter - having a vague idea of how it works isn't good enough). What good is a plow and irrigation to hunter-gatherers without any domesticated crops? Why do they need masonry? Dry-walling construction worked great for the rare peoples who wanted stone buildings. These are either useless to the tribe or presupposes a level of technical knowledge this guy doesn't have (just knowing something vaguely like this isn't enough to actually make it). $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi May 25 '18 at 13:52
  • $\begingroup$ most of these are useful only if you are not wandering. I believe at this stage of development most peoples were hunters & gatherers, meaning planting would be useless (they won't stay long enough to weep what they sow...litterally in this case). Likewise buildings, storage, etc are only useful if you stay in one place for extended periods. Even sanitation is less of a concern if you travel enough that your waste isn't likely to build up or contaminate your hunting. $\endgroup$ – dsollen May 25 '18 at 14:14

There is a big question of "why would they listen?" He isn't treated as a god, but a curiosity.

Writing is irrelevant - a tribe meeting makes sure everyone hears what they require to know and a tribe shaman takes care still valid knowledge goes on. There is no need to write tons of stuff down. Similarly, domestication or farming, math/calendar and even hygiene have too long "return on investment" - a tribe isn't going to bother listening to a weird newcomer demanding they do new stuff when the returns will be only seen after he is dead anyway.

So, I believe his development idea needs to be something tangible that reveals itself as useful fairly soon and lets him do it mostly alone. If the tribe is near the sea, shellfish (say oysters and mussels) farming would be a decent income of food in a fairly short amount of time, requiring little tools and skills to set up a rudimentary setup, which is also self-supporting. This might be enough the tribe decides to settle down near their oyster farms. A huge change in lifestyle and tons of other options follow.

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    $\begingroup$ Idk, if Jim is reasonably tall (6'2''+) and in decent shape, he will seem physically very powerful to the 5'10'' tribesmen. If he's white, they'll have never seen that before and so would likely see him as either a demon or a deity. $\endgroup$ – Korthalion May 25 '18 at 10:13
  • $\begingroup$ Writing could be important... if nothing else you could etch a message in stone (hoping it will survive the test of time) just so it'll really confuse archaeologists in the future, its of no use, but something we'd probably all do just for a laugh $\endgroup$ – Blade Wraith May 25 '18 at 12:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Korthalion I was injured in India, a "seemingly" powerful 6' person. The two 4'11" fisherman who held me down for sutures were far stronger than any men I have ever met. Using muscles everyday for survival makes for very strong people. $\endgroup$ – axsvl77 May 25 '18 at 13:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Korthalion Just saying. I think if you look it up, the primary evolutionary change from 40k year ago to now is we have far less musculature. Perhaps surviving agricultural famines provided a selective pressure towards light builds. $\endgroup$ – axsvl77 May 25 '18 at 14:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Korthalion you set off my pet-peeve; evolution doesn't work that way. 'Evolving' doesn't always mean stronger or bigger. If anything the time spent evolving likely made us weaker. As we developed towards technology and thus had less of a need for physical strength we likely traded some of it away to save on calories and/or focus on brain development. The few thousands of years is so short a time (from evolutionary standpoint) the effect of technology would be minor, but the point is we definitely wouldn't have evolved to be stronger in that time. $\endgroup$ – dsollen May 25 '18 at 14:19


Jim could use fat from a kill, heat it with stones from the fire till it runs, and pour it into a hollowed out bone "end" or raw mud pottery cup. Even a shell of an orange or a hollowed out root vegetable or tree nut shell would do.

Suspend a wick in the liquid, perhaps a few strands of cotton cloth from his clothes, and once the fat has cooled and solidified then its a candle.

Maybe keeping the source of the wicks secret is his way of stopping others from duplicating his candles.

Further info https://www.instructables.com/id/Fat-Candle/

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    $\begingroup$ Do you seriously believe that our Jim would know how to do this without instructions if you just one night plucked him from his couch? $\endgroup$ – pipe May 25 '18 at 12:37
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    $\begingroup$ @pipe yes. which is why I suggested it here in this answer. $\endgroup$ – Criggie May 26 '18 at 2:50
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    $\begingroup$ @pipe further "Jim spends his time drinking beer..." so its not much of a reach to assume that Jim also barbeques, or at least has attended a barbeque to drink beer. So he's likely seen meat cooked and fat running off and solidifying later. He's probably seen candles at some point, like on a birthday cake or on the TV that he watches, or when surfing the net as in original question. $\endgroup$ – Criggie May 26 '18 at 4:23
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    $\begingroup$ Yep, and those candles he's seen are made of highly refined oil, which is why I think this is a weird example. Unless this guy is a history buff and knows how candles used to be produced, he wouldn't see a connection. $\endgroup$ – pipe May 26 '18 at 7:38

There's probably a lot of common technologies (for us, the wheel for instance) he can teach them, possibly by accident, just by doing something without thinking.

Looking at his clothes, the paleolithics will likely wonder where he got these nicely sewn clothes from, where he answers: 'Well, I bought them obviously'.

Which brings me to the concept of: currency or money, a means of trading goods/services without immediately having to give something in return (money is basically a form of debt, exchangeable with everyone).

Although bartering has existed probably for a 100.000 years, the concept of money was first developed with the onset of agriculture.

With a monetary system in place you can build a more complex society, where some people will specialize in i.e. spear making, etc. in exchange for money, instead of the odd chance he can trade it for something he actually wants/needs at that very moment.

This eventually leads to people being able to invest time in other pursuits then "will I be able to feed my family today", probably leading to faster technological progress.

  • $\begingroup$ Well, you still won't be able to have specialized spear-makers if you society doesn't have excess food. And for that you need specialized "food producer", who can "produce" food for themself and the others who specialized in something else. And I doubt hunt/gathering can produce so many food. So, you still gonna need to develop agriculture before money and specialization. $\endgroup$ – user28434 May 25 '18 at 11:26
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    $\begingroup$ Hunter-gatherer societies tend not to even barter. Instead it is a very socialist approach where everyone is expected to work for the common good. (This works well in groups of up to about 100 - it doesn't scale beyond that.) $\endgroup$ – Martin Bonner May 25 '18 at 12:05
  • $\begingroup$ @user28434 In terms of Food/agcriculture he will at least know about weeding... even in roman times a crop field was covered with weeds, although it would be a more manual process, he will likely know that to kill the weed you need to dig up the roots, this would increase the yield of farming once he has this setup, which POTENTIALLY means more food per field quicker than even the Romans managed it, thus there would be excess food once he has "invented" agriculture $\endgroup$ – Blade Wraith May 25 '18 at 12:22
  • $\begingroup$ @BladeWraith, only it's Palaeolithic tribe and it has no fields, with or without weeds. So, first he needs to force whole Neolithic revolution, and only then start thinking about weeds in the fields. $\endgroup$ – user28434 May 25 '18 at 12:37
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    $\begingroup$ Money is useful to facilitate large-scale exchange with strangers (within the tribe people have a great sense of who owes them what). Barter works well enough for trade with outsiders in this situation - money would require a useful medium of exchange which is not itself valuable but is universally recognized as a store of value... not really likely for the paleolithic. Money just isn't actually useful until after you get a civilization going. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi May 25 '18 at 13:59

Magic or at least sleight of hand. Danger here is it might get him rejected, not accepted, if its perceived badly.

  • The shell game
  • penny (rock) from behind the ear
  • The thing with the disconnected thumb illusion
  • Cat's Cradle - perhaps he learned it from family or his own kids

Physical Actions - perhaps Jim can juggle? Bowling or catch or dodgeball or knucklebones - nothing that requires keeping score more than "one at a time" or "taking turns"

Music/Rhythm - noone knows what kind of song or music early man had. But there's a high chance birds were singing back then and early humans might have emulated them for pleasure. They might appreciate a rendition of "Yellow Submarine", without understanding it at all.

A sling might be feasible - needs some cord and a cup, and a bunch of smooth pebbles. He may not have the ability to sling it himself, but a tribe of people who live by their hands could see the benefit.

We're all adults here... so what age group is your story targetted at? Jim might be boring at home, but if missionaries haven't been invented then that's new and exotic.

Also there's a size differential as suggested by @Korthalion which may be proportional.

Even just same-but-different a way of freshening the blood leading to genetic variety over the subsequent generations. Many cultures recognise the dangers of inbreeding in isolated groups and could value Jim just for that.

  • $\begingroup$ "We are all adults here": I am pretty sure the missionary position was the default position for sex long before missionaries were invented. Remember that the primary biological purpose of sex in humans is not making babies - it is pair bonding. $\endgroup$ – Martin Bonner May 25 '18 at 12:09
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    $\begingroup$ This is exceptionally insulting to our ancestors. That you think any of this would amaze and impress them is... truly dumbfounding. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi May 25 '18 at 14:06
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    $\begingroup$ @pluckedkiwi I was trying to keep it discreet. Of course they didn't know genetics, but they would have figured out that fresh-blood into the group produced healthier children. $\endgroup$ – Criggie May 26 '18 at 2:48
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    $\begingroup$ ...and this is why mixing many points into one answer is bad. SE encourages up and down voting but disagree with one part and the good points raised suffer to. Try posting each major point as a separate answer, if its not covered already. $\endgroup$ – Pete May 26 '18 at 4:19

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