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In an environment in which acute radiation hazards are common what tools or techniques could be employed by primitive people to detect and thereby avoid radiation exposure?

These people do not understand what radiation is, but they do understand that there are invisible forces that make them sick. I’m essentially looking for something analogous to a canary in a coal mine which can detect and warn of a dangerous yet invisible situation without a clear understanding of the nature of the danger.

An example of this scenario would be a post apocalyptic situation in which primitives live near old melted down nuclear reactors. Another might be a world without a strong magnetic field where solar flares pose a radiation risk.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Jun 29 '18 at 2:35
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    $\begingroup$ You know that visible light is radiation, right? If you mean radioactivity, then you should use this specific word. $\endgroup$ – Madlozoz Jul 2 '18 at 9:53

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It happens that in 1986 I participated in the cleanup after the Chernobyl catastrophe. I worked as a radiation measurement specialist 20 m below that blasted 4th reactor. I worked at the station for the whole July. It was the worst time, for the radioactive dust levels increased till the finishing of the Sarcophagus.

As we had only masks as protection (but they were really good... when we had them), I learned that people can easily feel the radiation. A radioactive dust particle, sitting on your skin, creates the same feeling which you all know from the sun burn. Only the feeling is concentrated in a point. So, people do not need extra methods to detect half of the problem - the radioactive dust.

The negative side of that skin detection is that you don't feel the burn at once, when you feel it, you are already burnt. And when you feel one particle, probably you had got much more, but you don't feel them YET. Or they are inside you and you won't feel them at all. You must: 1. not allow them to get inside and 2. remove particles from the skin as early as it is possible. The solutions are: wear respirator mask everywhere except wet cleaned closed rooms, cover the skin everywhere, especially in connections between clothes' elements, showering after a walk, washing exposed parts skin even during the walk or work outside. And better don't go out when it is dry and the wind blows. And the time after rain is the least dangerous.

And this way will really work - I worked in the very epicenter, and even didn't follow the rules fully (the needed services were extremely badly organized), but I do live and have healthy children. But I was there only 35 days on the station and 35 days in the town. And your people live there. But they will use not so dangerous territories for living. I think, it will well compensate the longer time.

Notice, there are two kinds of radioactivity you should think about: gamma rays and beta+alpha rays. Gamma rays are much less destructing. But you cannot stop them by clothes. Alpha and beta are much more destructing, but they could be stopped even by air and easily - by clothes. As a result there are two sources of radioactivity. The radioactive dust - you are getting a particle on your skin or in your inside and it is killing you by all three kinds of rays, and the background radiation level from all surrounding, that consists of gamma rays only. If you had got only one radioactive dust particle inside, you don't need anything else. It will sit in you and kill your cells around. And sooner o later, some of your cells around it mutates - and the cancer comes. So, your task is not to allow a single radioactive particle to be on or in you for a long time.

As for gamma-ray background radiation, in our reality the levels that can be felt by organisms are deadly for humans. Of course, your people can find some plant or animal that is very sensible to radiation. Young animal or sprouts are more sensitive. Only by inventing some animal/plant and using a very young form you could compensate our very bad radioactive sensitivity. (look page N.5 here)

As for detection by radioluminescence, it also doesn't work until radiation level is already too high for humans. Only if a luminescent material was put directly to the eye, and the detection was done at night, then separate sparks while a particle passes through would be noticed.

But if the source is an old reactor, then the main danger will be the dust.

There will be another problem. Radiation does not change in a monotonic way - here it is OK, a kilometer further worse, further - even worse, and on that hill the worst... No. You have a clean place here, extremely dirty place around the corner, absolutely clean room nearly because windows were closed, terribly dirty door of this very room, and so on. The fact that you passed the area and remained clean doesn't mean you won't get very dirty the next time. It can happen if you take a slightly different path. Your protagonists should evaluate, mark and remember exact paths, not the areas. And they will need to recheck their paths often enough, for the wind is moving the dust.


It is funny that such society should create a special etiquette. One of the most impolite things you can do there is to raise the dust.

Smokers there could be only among some self-killing fanatics. Smoking worsen the output of dust particles from our lungs. But those people from the tale could invent some medicine to improve such output. They could wash their noses by salty water several times a day.


After some time I got bad feeling about your people - where they will get the clean water? The food can be planted under glass roofs in clean rooms, but I can't think out the source of water for them.

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    $\begingroup$ I was going to google and suggest something like this, but hearing it first hand is infinitely better. $\endgroup$ – Jeremy French Jun 28 '18 at 12:21
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    $\begingroup$ @JeremyFrench Not so much as being that first hand :-) $\endgroup$ – Gangnus Jun 29 '18 at 5:00
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    $\begingroup$ I just hope it isn't the single most useful piece of information I found this week. But it might be. $\endgroup$ – kubanczyk Jun 30 '18 at 11:03
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    $\begingroup$ @kubanczyk Great thanks for editing. $\endgroup$ – Gangnus Jul 1 '18 at 2:29
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    $\begingroup$ I remember reading an article about the aftermath of a hypothetical nuclear war. One of the things was that if your group of survivors has to move through some irradiated area, you should carry the children, because if they walk, they get affected more than adults, because they are shorter and their vital organs are closer to the ground. Maybe those primitive people could put caged white mice along their paths and check if they're alive. If the ground level mice are alive, the path is clear. If even the third floor mice are dead, it's oh shi... There could be a cast of the mice keepers. $\endgroup$ – Headcrab Jul 2 '18 at 7:50
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Try to use Radioluminescence

Radiation is quite difficult to detect in low-tech environment, and because humans are among the species most vulnerable to radiation, it will be challenging to find any other organism that would serve as an indicator.

However, if primitive people can synthesize radioluminescent phosphor materials like zinc sulfide, they can have a reasonably sensitive detector. Zinc sulfide glows when bombarded by alpha, beta particles, or X-rays, and the effect is quite noticeable even at radiation levels that are not particularly hazardous.

One caveat is that this kind of detector can not be observed in daylight.

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    $\begingroup$ Excellent answer. Why do you suggest that primitive people would need to synthesize ZnS though? Isn't it naturally occurring? Do you think it's possible that some sphalerite minerals might possess innate radioluminescence? $\endgroup$ – Mike Nichols Jun 25 '18 at 21:18
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    $\begingroup$ For use in daylight one wraps the sensitive material in the thinnest really opaque material you can get (the modern answer is black electrician's tape—one layer is usually enough, but use two for certainty) excepting a eyehole through which you look. The hard part is making the viewing aperture really light tight as well—I suspect that you use a bulging leather washer. $\endgroup$ – dmckee Jun 26 '18 at 1:30
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    $\begingroup$ Radioluminescent cats $\endgroup$ – technical_difficulty Jun 26 '18 at 6:33
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    $\begingroup$ There is a huge difference between dangerous levels of radiation, and dangerous levels of radioactivity. Just because your zinc sulfide screen does not glow does not mean that you can safely breathe in the environment without a filter mask or, safely eat and drink without first being thoroughly decontaminated. $\endgroup$ – Solomon Slow Jun 26 '18 at 17:05
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    $\begingroup$ The method is good for finding extremely strong radiation. All detected levels are far overkilling a human being. So, such detection is useless for the mentioned aim. $\endgroup$ – Gangnus Jun 26 '18 at 18:52
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One could use the canary in a coal mine type approach.

Canaries get sick quick when there is bad air. If your canary stops singing you know to clear out fast.

For radiation it would take longer. Your primitives would bring a cage with some small animal to the area and leave it for a few days. The cage has food and water adequate for the period. If the animals are suffering bloody diarrhea or are sloughing their eyes when the humans return, the area is bad. If the animals are doing fine, the humans will probably do fine as well.

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    $\begingroup$ This would work not only for pre-tech primitives and post-apocolyptic survivors, but also for tech-poor castaways. Environmental evaluation is an issue that comes up a lot in speculative fiction and this is a wonderful, believable and effective way of handling it. Thanks! +1 $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Jun 25 '18 at 20:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Willk, could such evaluation be done without the cage? If I am entering an area and I see a mouse which appears healthy, can I rule out radiation? If so, then a good pair of binoculars just became much more valuable on my survivalist's christmas list. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Jun 25 '18 at 20:57
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    $\begingroup$ @DanielB, In some of the OP's scenarios, they aren't really primitives. Post-apocolyptic survivors, especially those from a nuclear event would know about radiation and might retain some aspects of the scientific method, even a few generations after the event. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Jun 25 '18 at 20:58
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    $\begingroup$ @DanielB How is this any more advanced in concept than 'taste my food slave, it may be poisoned'? This comment along with your other comment picking at the premise of the question are both not what we're looking for on worldbuilding. Please refer to the rules worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/help $\endgroup$ – Korthalion Jun 26 '18 at 10:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Renan I can't find any specific evidence for that claim. There is radon present in them, but they're made of granite which has traces of uranium and thorium that would give it off as they decayed (similar to how it can build up in basements in some areas). newscientist.com/article/… $\endgroup$ – Dan Neely Jun 26 '18 at 18:50
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Local flora and fauna

One issue with radiation poisoning is that, as in most poisons, dosage is key. Also, with radiation poisoning, damage is accumulative.

So any biological test ("canary") that you design may survive a few days, give you a false sense of security, and led you into a dangerous zone.

Even if you realize in time and you do not die directly from radiation poisoning, the increased rate of cancer will take a heavy toll on your tribe. And of course, if you repeat this mistake often, it will end wiping your entire tribe.

So the best method would be to check for local flora and fauna; as those have been around for a long time and so are a better indicator of current situation. When approaching a dangerous area you will notice:

  • Less plants and animals.

  • You see an inordinate amount of ill/mutated/dead without apparent cause of animals and plants.

  • You see more and more of the simpler species (insects, ferns, moss) and less of the more complex species (mammals, birds, trees).

With enough time, it is possible that some variety of the most basic living forms evolves to be more resilient to radiation1. With time this species will likely colonize all of those zones that are hard for the regular species to live on, so just by spotting that specific kind of life form in considerable amount would warn your heroes.


1It is more probable than it happens to simple life forms because their simplicity means that changes/mutations "break" less of their organic chemistry, and also usually they have a higher reproductive rate.

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    $\begingroup$ Please note that in Chernobyl Exclusion Zone wildlife is flourishing. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jun 25 '18 at 21:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Alexander interesting, but it seems that the radiation in the area is rather mild when compared to what the OP describes as "invisible forces that make you sick". In fact, it quotes that there are around 200 "old timers" still living there, and even some hundreds or thousands of squatters. And even with that relatively low radiation level, it states that it affects the fauna, and that the flourishment is linked to the absence of humans. $\endgroup$ – SJuan76 Jun 25 '18 at 21:47
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    $\begingroup$ The level of radiation of course can be different, but Chernobyl's aftermath still makes people sick - they just not dying right away. To an outside observer, the area may look normal, but should a community/tribe settle there, average life expectancy will certainly take a plunge. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jun 25 '18 at 22:07
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    $\begingroup$ The cancer rate wouldn't increase as much as you think. The human body is pretty good at repairing even radiation damage, so as long as our tribesmen don't take a lethal dose they should recover enough to live a normal tribesmen's life (low life expectancy anyway by modern standards, unlikely to be cancer that kills them in any instance). $\endgroup$ – Korthalion Jun 26 '18 at 10:57
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    $\begingroup$ "You see more and more of the simpler species (insects, ferns, moss) and less of the more complex species (mammals, birds, trees)." Completely wrong. Most insects die really really fast to radiation, due to their small size. In Chernobyl for example, dead leaves take forever to compose, because the microbes necessary don't exist there $\endgroup$ – Hobbamok Jun 27 '18 at 8:02
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Fertilized eggs.

You place fertilized eggs about, and periodically (daily-ish) gather them back up and try to hatch them. My grandmother had a job doing just that at Berkeley in the 40s.

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    $\begingroup$ I think this is the best canary-style answer here. Eggs undergoing development will be much more susceptible to deformities than fully grown animals $\endgroup$ – rtpax Jun 27 '18 at 17:59
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Except for the spots where the radiation is high enough to be lethal immediately-or-close-to, they probably won't figure it out. Humans, especially primitive humans, are shockingly bad at nailing own the causes of what makes us sick. the examples are countless.

  • Lead poisoning. From ancient roman pipes and to pewter cookware to leaded gas, we've been poisoning ourselves with lead for millennia, and seem to be completely surprised if and when we figure it out, and then go right back to using it. After the romans figured it out (hardly a primitive people) we didn't figure it out again for another 1600 years.

  • Scurvy. Figuring this out literally took millennia, and even when we did, that knowledge took centuries to really spread. Millions of sailors died to scurvy during the age of sail.

  • Most diseases. Malaria was killing people for 8,000 years before Romans started to suspect that maybe the bugs had something to do with it, and even so, we didn't really nail it down until the 20th century. Yellow fever, likewise. Cholera's association with water tainted with human waste, plague's association with rats and fleas, none of this was really understood by vastly more intelligent civilizations than the one's you're depicting.

If they're being exposed to radiation-sickness causing levels of background radiation, then maybe, maybe, they'll incidentally tend, due to natural selection, to live and prefer the areas that are less radioactive, over the course of hundreds to thousands of years. Avoiding the immediate area around nuclear reactors, near any deposits of corium, would be considerably faster as a process, courtesy of @Valerio Pastore's answer.

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    $\begingroup$ Was reading a 1903 published book on chemistry translated from a 1889 German edition. In it they mention lead for water pipes and bemoan the fact that certain water sources have enough impurities to briefly or continuously corrode the lead. In the book it is also written that the Romans used lead and were aware of the corrosive nature of water in some situations. The Romans might not have been aware of the cumulative poisoning effects but the 1889 writers were. $\endgroup$ – KalleMP Jun 26 '18 at 10:23
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    $\begingroup$ +1 this is the correct answer. It took millennia for civilization to discover that washing hands was important before surgery. If they don't get germ theory, they're not going to understand something like radiation enough to create a working detection device. $\endgroup$ – kuhl Jun 26 '18 at 17:51
  • $\begingroup$ They could get the knowledge from their ancestors. Something as: where this and that stuff happens, evil spirits live. We should evade them. $\endgroup$ – Gangnus Jun 26 '18 at 19:02
  • $\begingroup$ The scurvy example is a good illustration of a counterpoint, also. Native American tribes had a various effective means of avoiding scurvy, perhaps because their entire population was at risk. Europe's land-based population was not generally at risk, only the small and not particularly well regarded fraction of society sent to sea typically suffered it, and that could have a lot to do with not figuring out the problem. $\endgroup$ – Chris Stratton Jun 27 '18 at 2:25
  • $\begingroup$ “Not figuring out the problem” is exactly what I was talking about. $\endgroup$ – Daniel B Jun 27 '18 at 5:16
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Take two hairs, join them at one end and mount them on a metal nail fitted into a decent insulator (say amber or something similar), charge the arrangement with static, the hairs will move apart due to electrostatic repulsion.

Add ionising radiation, the charge will bleed off and the hairs move together.

It is a dead crude electometer, but would probably be good enough for very crude dosimetry (And indeed one version of the dosimeters used in the nuclear industry works on exactly this principle).

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    $\begingroup$ It's a device that is described in so many survivalist stories that it has become a trope. You put it in some kind of glass jar or some such, with some kind of water absorbing material because if the humidity is high it will discharge on its own. Then you charge it up with a cat's fur and a glass rod, stick the lid on, and wait. Someplace there is even a calibration curve for a device like this. $\endgroup$ – user52458 Jun 27 '18 at 2:26
  • $\begingroup$ @puppetsock Didn't know that it was a trope in that sort of fiction, nothing new in this world... Salt would do as a desiccant if dried over a fire. $\endgroup$ – Dan Mills Jun 27 '18 at 9:06
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Unfortunately, none.

This is not a quick assumption. It's been researched (see also on Slate) as part of the long-term storage of nuclear waste. One of the assumptions there was that the storage should be safe even in the case of a decline in civilization. It's probably one of the few areas in which physicists had to call in help from anthropologists, instead of the other way around!

One of the key conclusions was that even with our help in preparation, there would be no way to have future non-industrial people detect radiation. First off, detecting radiation is not sufficient. C-14 is all around is, that's how carbon dating works. Potassium is also common enough, and naturally radioactive. But you're specifically concerned about elevated radiation, so you need a quantitative detector. Pre-industrial age, you cannot rely on electricity, yet it's the ionizing nature that makes radiation harmful.

Other answers have suggested vegetation. We know from Chernobyl that's not a reliable indication. The vegetation there recovered well before areas were safe for humans. Plants are just a lot simpler than animals. A tree is much less likely to die from losing a branch than an animal from losing a limb.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is a good answer, but it could be improved by adding some research. $\endgroup$ – kuhl Jun 26 '18 at 17:52
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The only available detectors would be...the people themselves.

The amount of radiation coming from the exposed core of a nuclear plant will kill you almost instantly. The people unfortunate enough to wander inside that deadly wreck seeking shelter would never leave. They'd make the first ring of bodies.

Anyone else coming near the plant for the same reason would see the remains of those who came first. Would probably suspect something wrong -after all, no one shows signs of being eaten by predators, and everyone old and young alike is dead as if struck by a plague. Newcomers walk away, but they have been exposed to a very hard dose of radiation. They will die not far from the wreck.

New group passes by. This time they see the remains of the dead outside the monolith. They too think 'plague'. They don't touch the bodies but again they are close enough to get high doses of radiation. They will not die immediately but they'll start suffering radiation sickness soon.

And so on, until at last there will be consolidated word that the monolith is a cursed place of death, that its waters are poisoned, no one must approach it ever

EDIT: 300 seconds of exposure to the notorious Chernobyl's "Elephant's foot" will kill a healthy person in 2 days -considering that before one day has passed people are suffering severe radiation poisoning symptoms.

Imagine instead these primitive persons, who know nothing about radiation, looking out for shelter and not only finding it in the monolith, but also discovering -how lucky!- a source of heat! What could be more alluring than a warm, godsent metal that gives up heat without fire? Imagine these hapless innocents starting to cuddle by the warm source, before getting headache, nausea, cramps, as the seconds pass and they still don't understand they have sentenced themselves to death...But they get weaker and weaker. 300 seconds pass and they cannot but writhe and curse their fate as their DNA is destroyed and their organs collapse...

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    $\begingroup$ “They will die not far from the wreck.” — usually not. The kind of acute radiation poisoning you’re describing here will kill a person within days. That’s more than enough to wander off to somewhere else, obscuring the location of the source of the problem. $\endgroup$ – Konrad Rudolph Jun 26 '18 at 11:03
  • $\begingroup$ @KonradRudolph but if they get sick, it is lickely they will stay at the shelter instead of wandering away :) $\endgroup$ – Džuris Jun 27 '18 at 10:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Džuris Onset of symptoms is delayed for hours, up to days. Anyway, the shelter is not the source of the radiation, nor immediately next to the place where they will have received their lethal dose of radiation. $\endgroup$ – Konrad Rudolph Jun 27 '18 at 10:18
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    $\begingroup$ Check out Wikipedia's radiation-sickness effects table. Your "first ring of bodies" is going to be people who quickly get a dose of 30+ Gy. Most people, however, are going to get doses in the 2-8 Gy range, which is still going to kill you without medical care, but you feel fine for hours or even days after exposure. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samut_Prakan_radiation_accident and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goiânia_accident for how radiation exposure plays out in the real world. $\endgroup$ – Mark Jun 27 '18 at 22:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Mark It's not like hunters-gatherers will be 30 km away the next day. Not when they are mostly vomiting or have a "moderate headache". Unless they live as mounted cavalry. $\endgroup$ – kubanczyk Jun 30 '18 at 11:29
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The question is what sort of timescale do you need the canary to die to warn you that there's a problem?

If you can settle with not immediate, then butterfly larva are very sensitive to radiation when fed contaminated leaves. https://setac.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/ieam.1828 A colony could easily keep a collection of butterflies and then feed the larva samples taken from an area they plan to move to; If they see the butterflies are deformed, then they don't go back to that area; or actively move away from it.

If you need "faster than you", then I'd probably opt for a slave or prisoner; or even "volunteer". Get them to be more exposed than you and depart when they start to look ill. Don't forget that history is littered with human sacrifice for much less meaningful reasons than "it might save the rest of the group". The more desperate the situation, the more likely I think this would be employed.

If you need "more humane", then clearly it's not such a bad apocalyptic world where you're having to fight for your survival; and you can afford to use option 1.

The lack of wildlife I suspect is a poor way to work out how bad an area is; since ignoring the sounds of birds, you're unlikely to come across many animals anyway; so working out the difference between "not many" and "slightly less than not many" is not going to be easy to do; and by the time you do notice it, it's probably too late.

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    $\begingroup$ The problem with the "slave" option is that there's a substantial time delay between absorbing enough radiation to cause problems and starting to show symptoms. $\endgroup$ – Mark Jun 27 '18 at 23:04
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If the previous civilization was sufficiently advanced there’s no reason to believe they wouldn’t have had tools to detect the radiation. I really like the zinc sulphide answer. Perhaps there are a few “talismans” or something the primitive people have that glow under radiation, but because the knowledge has been lost they don’t know how or why this happens. You could also have an underclass of people who explore the dangerous areas but are considered heroes for the risks they take.

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    $\begingroup$ Hello, user22106, and welcome to Worldbuilding. Right now, this answer doesn't seem to add much to the others. Perhaps you could expand your idea about an "underclass" who explore potentially dangerous areas to make this answer less a restating of ideas put forward in previous answers. Please take our tour, and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have a nice day! $\endgroup$ – Gryphon - Reinstate Monica Jun 26 '18 at 0:07
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    $\begingroup$ Oh wow, thanks for the feedback. I am new here and tried to “respond” rather than make a new answer but couldn’t figure it out. I’ll check those links out for sure. I found this site randomly found a world building question and thought it seemed interesting enough to join. I have read a few answers here and I didn’t think my contribution was so off base from other responses I’ve seen so far in other questions. Blessings, and thanks for the links. $\endgroup$ – user22106 Jun 26 '18 at 0:23
  • $\begingroup$ @user22106: The comment function is available as soon as you reach 50 reputation $\endgroup$ – ArtificialSoul Jun 26 '18 at 6:58
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site @user22106! We're a little different from other sites and it does take some getting used to; please do check out the links and keep participating. You can edit your answer to add more information. (By the way, you can give yourself a more meaningful name by clicking on your name to go to your profile, then clicking on "edit profile settings". Unless you have some particular affinity for the number 22106, I mean.) $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Jun 27 '18 at 2:31
  • $\begingroup$ @MonicaCellio i cant figure out how to change my profile settings. I don’t mind my username but i want to see what it is. Maybe i would prefer to be worker 11811 $\endgroup$ – user22106 Jun 28 '18 at 1:09
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With flowers. Not by seeing if there are more or less of them, but with the actual flower.

Hairyflower Spiderwort (its a real plant and thats really it's name) can detect radiation. I'm sure there are others that can as well, I just happen to know this one because it's also edible and has a very memorable name.

https://flawildflowers.org/flower-friday-tradescantia/

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There are several chemical solutions that change in the presence of radiation. Making them isn't easy enough to be called primitive. Silver or Phosphorus compounds are the goto candidates, but both are fairly likely to be at least as dangerous in use as radiation.

Slightly better might be to hope the humans are not the most radiation sensitive thing in the environment and flee when they see things die. Dogs are slightly less radiation tolerant than humans and very plausibly attached to primitive humans, but most small mammals and birds are hardier, and some insects and reptiles handle more than an order of magnitude more.

Fortunately most trees and plants are noticeably effected by continuous doses required for humans to get radiation sickness over short times. So if the people are worried about slow problems like old waste sites they should have a good idea of where to avoid. Unfortunately plants don't wither fast enough to avoid human problems if exposed at the same time.

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I was reading up about gemstone irradiation. This is a process in industry to change the optical properties of gem stones. It made me think a primitive people might become aware of a special kind of gemstone which is affected at far lower levels of radiation which would indicate danger. That could work like the talisman idea mentioned previously. The primitive people could fashion these gemstones into items which are used by shamans to worship an invisible god and protect them from evil or something like that.

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    $\begingroup$ Considering that all known gemstones require radiation far in excess of lethal levels to change colors, simply specifying "some special kind of gemstone" isn't far removed from saying "use magic". $\endgroup$ – Mark Jun 27 '18 at 23:08
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    $\begingroup$ That's a negative comment, its not magic at all. I am suggesting a new ordinary item may exist in the new world this person is building (this is world building remember) which can use an existing mechanism to provide the result they are looking for. It's not magic. Similarly the earliest gemstone irradiation experiment involved burying a gem in irradiated ground for a year. $\endgroup$ – Stevernator Jun 27 '18 at 23:13
  • $\begingroup$ The first irradiation experiment involved burying a diamond in radium bromide for a year. Radium bromide is a strong alpha emitter -- it's only (sort of) safe to handle because your skin and clothing provide decent shielding against alpha radiation. If you want to suggest a solution for detecting radiation (eg. a gemstone even more radiation-sensitive than a human), it's helpful if you can show that such a solution can exist, particularly if all evidence indicates otherwise. $\endgroup$ – Mark Jun 27 '18 at 23:36
  • $\begingroup$ There is the scintillation detector that already exists. The scintillation detector's active portion for detecting radioactivity is a solid crystal. radiationanswers.org/radiation-introduction/detecting-measuring/… $\endgroup$ – Stevernator Jun 28 '18 at 0:30
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It's worth highlighting that we didn't even know that radiation was a thing, let alone what kind of thing, until at least Henri Bacquerel in 1896, maybe Willhelm Roentgen a year before. It kills slowly, and is relatively everpresent, so if this is a true alternate-universe kind of thing and your people are "primitive" as in lacking history and technology, they have slim chances.

A great example of this is more likely disease. Bear with me, it directly relates to your question. It isn't radiation specifically, but it's hardly any less magical. Where microorganisms go, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek reported their discovery no later than 1676. John Snow, an English doctor, determined that cholera (and likely other diseases) were spread by water in 1854. However, actual basic sanitation practices, like hospital workers washing their hands, weren't implemented until around 1873, famously at the behest of figures like Florence Nightingale. Before this, maternal mortality rates were at around 20%, maybe higher in some areas, because no one was practicing basic sanitation. Something you can point at with a microscope is a lot more obvious, but it took us over a hundred years to hammer into our heads that yes, this is real, yes, we can stop it, and yeah, we've been killing our patients by not doing so.

You can imagine how much of a mind-boggler radiation is in comparison. Most people still don't understand it, and we're not even living in a primitive society.

That said, basic sanitation systems such as sewage systems have been found in early Babylon. There's no documentation of why it worked, only that it clearly did. Minoa (Crete) and Herakopolis (Egypt) had flush toilets well into the BCs. What was evident was that something, somehow related to the filth, was a contributor to disease. It is highly doubtful that they had a sophisticated understanding of microorganisms and pathogenesis, but the linkage was clear.

If your universe contains a lot of highly radioactive sites, I would suggest this. Perhaps a simple photographic plate, with a combination of silver nitrate and halide, could be kept in a dark box (like one made out of thin opaque metal). A scout could enter an area with it, and return, and if the plate was exposed in spite of a lack of light, alpha/beta/gamma radiation could be assumed.

They would get other clues from the environment; such as a lack of life outright (get out of there fast!) or a hyper-prevalence of mutations. Their explanations for these things might be, well, wayward; maybe they think the area is cursed by the gods or something like that. Maybe the people who looked at the plates would be considered priests or something like it. However, the correlation is what counts.

Radiation isn't hard to detect; it's explaining it to people that's difficult.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure the desire for flush toilets was necessarily driven by an understanding of the risks posed by faecal micro-organisms. The smell alone would've been plenty of incentive. $\endgroup$ – Oscar Bravo Jun 26 '18 at 14:03
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    $\begingroup$ Use of photographic plates in this way assumes the primatives have more than hunter-gather level of tech and assumes they have made the connection between suspect sites and said plates. It might be that a photographer wanted to take pictures but couldn't because they all were pre-exposed and started to make the connection but photography is not something I'd expect to exist in a non-industrialized context. That being said +1 for a well thought out idea (disease) $\endgroup$ – Kelly S. French Jun 27 '18 at 15:57
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A cloud chamber is a primitive device that was used many decades ago to visualize tracks of radioactive particles. Construction of a cloud chamber can be accomplished by a student. See https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/critical-opalescence/how-to-build-the-worlds-simplest-particle-detector/

Construction and use of a cloud chamber might be beyond the resources of a primitive society, but capable by a group of survivors.

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  • $\begingroup$ The cloud chamber I built as student required dry ice, aka solid CO2... $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Jun 27 '18 at 17:41
  • $\begingroup$ The chamber in the article uses an aerosol can to achieve low temperatures, not solid CO2. A ready source of solid CO2 is a CO2 fire extinguisher. Capture the snow coming from the nozzle. $\endgroup$ – Dale Jun 27 '18 at 17:47
  • $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch dry ice isn't required. The basic principle is that you have a supercooled vapor mass. That is you have a gas that wants to become a liquid, but hasn't found a nucleation site to get the process started yet. High energy particles passing through the cloud knock things about and get the condensation process started. Any gas can be used. The first cloud chamber used water vapor and a diaphragm to achieve super-cooling by expansion. Primitives would need only rudimentary glass technology to build such a device. $\endgroup$ – Perkins Jun 28 '18 at 23:06
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The primitives could use "ray cats" that glow in the presence of the radiation

This was a proposed solution by Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri to the problem of making a symbol that would be able to mark the presence of radiation and be useful for 10,000 years.

There's even a catchy song about "ray cats", and an episode of a well known podcast that mention them too.

Joking aside, this could be a valid way to detect radiation assuming that the primitive people lived in a country that actually genetically engineered "ray cats" or some other animal that changed appearance in order to warn of radiation.

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A longer-term solution would be to use humans in the following way.

Incorporate into culture that a boy needs to live alone in the woods for 5 days on a place, selected by the elders, to become a man. If they die or become extremely sick, apparently they are not worth in the eyes of the gods.

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    $\begingroup$ how would this detect radiation? $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Jun 27 '18 at 12:52
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch it is a device, which takes 5-10 days to measure a reading of binary type: the contamination of an area with ionizing radiation, radioactive dust and chemicals is deadly / not deadly. $\endgroup$ – Vorac Jun 27 '18 at 14:30
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    $\begingroup$ Nasty, but it would work and it's no worse than some initiations I've heard of. $\endgroup$ – Ash Jun 27 '18 at 15:10
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    $\begingroup$ Cruel, but potentially effective at allowing the larger population to survive in the apocalypse example. Not as good in the solar radiation example, but I think natural selection might be the only answer for that example. $\endgroup$ – Kyle A Jun 29 '18 at 20:21
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    $\begingroup$ @KyleA indeed my, and many other answers here, don't address the sun flare example. It is quite different than the first one. For it, even a Geiger counter wouldn't be enough. People would either have to stay indoors (as you say evolve), or use prediction methods as we are using for sun flares now (weather satelites + supercomputers). $\endgroup$ – Vorac Jul 2 '18 at 7:56
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There is actually a pretty straightforward answer to this. You need only look to history.

I can't guarantee you can detect all radioactive materials by hand, obviously rudimentary detection techniques will have rudimentary precision.

One of the properties of Radium that greatly intrigued Marie Curie and other scientists of the 20th century was that Radium is always warmer than the surrounding temperature, no matter what environment it is. It gives off heat, seemingly from nothing. The more radioactive the material, the stronger this property is. It is well known that Plutonium-238 glows from it's own self-heating.

enter image description here By Department of Energy - http://www.doedigitalarchive.doe.gov/ImageDetailView.cfm?ImageID=2006407&page=search&pageid=thumb, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1034533

So the raw heat of the radioactive material, and glowing in extreme cases, can be used to detect more strongly radioactive material.

Asking to detectvery much less radioactive material without precise instruments might not be so simple with direct immediate effects.

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    $\begingroup$ Radium and plutonium are both alpha emitters. Your skin provides adequate shielding against alpha radiation -- it's only once it gets inside you that it causes problems. The big risk is stuff like caesium-137 or cobalt-60: beta/gamma emitters. It doesn't take much exposure to get a lethal dose from one of those, but it takes considerably more to get a feeling of warmth. (None of the victims of either the Goiânia accident or the Samut Prakan accident described the source as warm). $\endgroup$ – Mark Jun 27 '18 at 23:28
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People forget sometimes that this is a fictional website. I think that the answer that there is no "adequate timely indicator" is true, but an alien life form in a risky "radiationally variable" may have evolved special detection techniques that would let people know that high radiation is coming.

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Taboo and superstition

Based on past experience of ill effects sometimes appearing on people who live/go in particular places, you'd expect superstition to take over.

"We just don't go there". It's taboo. That's it - no detection, but avoiding certain places just because; reinforced by ill health actually happening to people who had violated the taboo.

Once formed and ingrained in culture, such taboo concepts can be very long-lasting.

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I believe that star trek next generation did this one.

Data was stranded on a planet and lost his memory. He had in his possession a case containing metal fragments from a crashed satellite. The fragments were making the towns people sick and no one knew why.

He didn't know who he was, or remember any of his scientific knowledge but he still knew how to reason. He discovered that a sheet coated with phosphorous would glow in the presence of the metal. He concluded that something must be coming out of the metal that caused the phosphorous to glow.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thine_Own_Self

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There is a form of radiation that primitive people can most certainly detect. It's visible light. Our eyeballs are tuned to detect and process radiation in the frequency range from red to violet. We use the resulting information to help us live and thrive.

So perhaps the primitive people in this world of yours have an extra sense organ, one that detects ionizing radiation. If the resulting sensation is unpleasant, as pain is unpleasant, such an organ would have survival value.

How would such an organ work? I have no idea.

How would it come into existence? It could be intelligent design. Or it could be simply random mutation coupled with natural selection. This last mechanism takes a long time. How much time do you have?

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Suggestion

Use their eyes.

Explanation

Other answers have mentioned how humans can detect electromagnetic radiation directly using their eyes. I would build upon that answer by mentioning that various animals have different rods/cones that allow them to perceive different parts of the spectrum, like further into the blue/UV portion so it would not be a stretch to include the concept of people with special 'vision' who can see the radiation. I know that is not a technological answer but it does solve the issue of being available to even the most primitive of societies. In addition I would point out that astronauts have problems sleeping due to 'light flashes' they could see even with their eyes closed and are suspected to be caused by cosmic rays or Cherenkov radiation. This can be taken advantage of simply by having people report said light if they attempt to sleep in an affected area. They wouldn't have to understand radiation to attribute the experience to 'ghosts' and begin to shun the location.

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