Here's the scenario: living deep underground, far from any influence of modern humans, is a civilization of what can essentially be considered early Sumerians (from 3000 BC). Disregard how they got there, why or how they've stayed there, how they haven't been detected, and how their technology and knowledge have remained locked in the Mesopotamian era. If it makes it easier, assume they have been kept in stasis since 3000 BC.

All modern humans evacuate Earth, taking with them everything which can be moved, and disassembling the rest. This means they leave things like large buildings, massive factories, and the like. All machinery and others parts have been removed, leaving only skeletons of buildings left.

With only these artifacts present, what advances would the Sumerian civilization immediately gain?

Assuming that the Sumerians emerge from their underground lairs once we have evacuated, will they be merely bewildered by what they see, or will they begin to understand the purpose behind at least some of it? If so, what?

NOTE: I'm talking about advancements here. That is, what will the Sumerians be able to understand and duplicate? For example, if they see a steam engine (which they won't because it's gone, but as an example), would they be able to eventually figure it out much sooner than they would on their own? What about building structures? Would they go from caves or simple huts to mock-skyscrapers? What advancements would they gain?

  • The modern humans have evacuated Earth to avoid being wiped out by a comet collision. Assume that they left tomorrow. They will not return. Don't worry about the technology required to pull off such an evacuation. If it makes it easier, assume benevolent aliens evacuated them. They have taken everything they will ever need, including:
  • All technology and electronics. 'Technology' here means anything we've ever made and can move. So ancient steam engines and home tools go, but things like the skeleton of the Arecibo Observatory remain (stripped of devices of course; primarily just the radar dish).
  • Many permanent fixtures (like telephone wires) have been disassembled for transport/resources
  • Most homes have been disassembled for resources. Large skyscrapers and other massive buildings have been stripped of anything valuable and left.
  • Farm fields have been harvested, and then left unattended.
  • Power plants have been disassembled for parts and resources, leaving only the outer walls behind.
  • All books have been taken. There are however more permanent writings, such as carvings, sculptures, and drawings on walls.
  • Graveyards have been mostly emptied, but many tombstones remain untouched.
  • Things like roads, subway tunnels, and massive bridges have been left, stripped of machinery. Things like railroad tracks and small bridges have been salvaged for resources and removed.
  • Archaeological dig-sites are intact, but everything modern has been removed from them. Just the excavation itself remains.

This question is not a duplicate of this question. That question is similar, but deals with what humans would find given a gap of 3-5 million years. My question asks what early humans would find and how it would effect them, if we left today, taking nearly everything with us, and they emerged shortly afterwards (a matter of months).

If more details of what is left are required, let me know and I will happily provide them.

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    $\begingroup$ Mesopotamia is a place not a people or an era; please clarify which Mesopotamian civilisation is going to be taking advantage of our scraps. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Commented Sep 2, 2018 at 15:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Ash Good point; I've edited to specify that I'm talking about Sumer from around 3000 BC. I'm simply going for the earliest civilization I can find, just to make the technology gap as big as currently possible. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 2, 2018 at 16:37
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    $\begingroup$ Are you looking for what they can get short-term, in the first generation or two, or what they can find early over the next few centuries? Because in the short term, I think the scavengable materials will be by far the most useful thing—you don't have to know how to smelt steel to use scraps of it for all kinds of purposes. Not to mention the, livable buildings, walkable bridges, etc. will all be useful without being understood. $\endgroup$
    – abarnert
    Commented Sep 2, 2018 at 16:45
  • $\begingroup$ IIRC, one of the Culture novels has a civilization that's been scavenging ruins from a more advanced race for millennia, and it's only in the past few generations that they've been able to even try to understand any of it, or make use of the more advanced devices, but long before that, the materials they were able to harvest and reuse gave enough of a lead that they were able to conquer their planet (or their level of a shellworld? I forget…) long ago. $\endgroup$
    – abarnert
    Commented Sep 2, 2018 at 16:47
  • $\begingroup$ @abarnert I've edited to clarify that I'm talking about advancements, that is, things they can learn and duplicate faster than they would on their own. I'm not actually talking about what they can just use. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 2, 2018 at 16:53

2 Answers 2


What scientific advances would they immediately gain? Virtually nothing.

There's a tremendous amount of useful material. Without having any idea how to mine aluminum or smelt steel, you can still recognize how useful they are and make tools, weapons, supports, etc. that far outstrip anything an early bronze age culture could make for themselves. And it sounds like, while most of the big stuff has been taken, there's still more than enough left behind for a population of a few thousand people to live off for a long time. (Sure, they'd strip Samawah pretty quickly, but Basra, Baghdad, and other large cities are not that far away.)

Not to mention that they could go live in those cities full of buildings that protect them from the weather, roads that make travel easy, bridges for crossing rivers, cleared and flattened lands for planting, etc.

But there would be, if anything, even less reason for them to develop any of the related technologies than there was historically. After all, why bother to advance your bronze and stone technologies, much less learn about iron, when you have high-carbon steel bars and aluminum foil and so on lying around?

Not to mention that what little tin, iron, etc. existed around Sumer (and there wasn't much—most of the Mesopotamian civilizations depended on metal imports) for them and their successors have all been completely exhausted by the intervening 5000 years of civilization.

And, of course, there's no one to learn from. Many advances weren't invented by the Sumerians and their Mesopotamian successors, but in the Levant, the Indus, Egypt, and other more distant places, and spread by trade and diffusion. You're restarting global civilization in the early bronze age with just a single site.

Over the centuries, there are plenty of things that would give them a head start.

For example, the idea of an arch is pretty simple. When you see enough massive buildings all using arches for support, your craftsmen will eventually figure out how to take advantage of that without needing the thousands of years of engineering/architecture and math and trial and error that went into it.

But immediately? Even if one bright guy has the idea of making buildings with arches right away, he's not going to be able to do anything with it. And who would want to support him? Anyone who doesn't want to live in the fancy new buildings is presumably a traditionalist who wants to live in the same style of buildings their ancestors did. The middle ground between the two will take generations to become useful.

As for translating our writings and the like, that's going to take far longer.

Consider the medieval Arabic scholars who tried to decipher hieroglyphics. They were dealing with writings about 1000 years old; they had speakers of languages that descended from the same language the hieroglyphs recorded; they knew enough to readily understand most of what had been written; they were dealing with a partially ideographic rather than purely symbolic system… and they still made no progress. And when Europeans got interested centuries later, all they came up with was fantasies. It's only in the 19th century—after finding the Rosetta Stone, which wouldn't have been nearly as useful if the third script on that stone hadn't been one that we already knew—that anyone was able to succeed.

On further reflection, there's another problem as well: Necessity is the mother of invention. People knew about iron for centuries, but nobody transitioned from bronze to iron until they ran out of tin—and most people didn't even transition then, but only after they were forced to fight iron-armed neighbors. People who lived in areas with ridiculously plentiful fish and fruit (like Oregon) didn't develop agriculture unless they were conquered by an army of people who had been forced into agriculture and eventually reaped the benefits of it. People who didn't live in places with widely varying harvests like the Nile or Yellow River flood plains didn't develop math and writing unless they got it from neighbors who wanted to trade with them or conquer them.

So, what happens if you give a small civilization pre-cleared farmland, steel and window glass and plastic sheeting lying around for the taking, almost no natural predators, and no other civilizations to compete with? They'd probably develop slower, not faster. Eventually, after they'd reached the point where they either fractured into independent competing civilizations or built up unsupportable population densities, there'd be something to drive them forward again—but even then, for quite some time, there'd still be ready answers from scavenging better than anything they could invent. Eventually, someone would hit on the fact that 20000 men armed with low-quality iron weapons could beat 1000 men armed with scavenged steel, but we're talking about a kingdom on the scale of the Neo-Assyrians or the Persians before that's even worth thinking about.

  • $\begingroup$ I think that they would get a more significant advantage in architecture than you make out. sure the idea of an arch is simple but the pointed arch, parabolic arch, dome, pendetive, flying butress etc... took thousands of years to develop. and someone will need new buildings made, simply as old ones fall down and as they need buildings places that there are not buildings currently. $\endgroup$
    – Ummdustry
    Commented Sep 2, 2018 at 17:29
  • $\begingroup$ @Ummdustry The question stresses immediately. Just seeing different kinds of arches is not going to let you immediately begin building larger and more stable buildings than you would have. What it will do is speed up the experimentation of future generations—but we're talking a span of centuries, not years. In the short term, it won't do anything. $\endgroup$
    – abarnert
    Commented Sep 2, 2018 at 17:35

One major advantage will be raw resources, especially aluminum if they were left behind. Aluminum takes very advanced technology to efficiently extract from ore, but once extracted it is pretty easy to work with. If for example soda get left behind to any substantial extent (or just garbage heaps) there's going to be a lot of valuable resources there.

  • $\begingroup$ I've edited to clarify that I'm talking about advancements, that is, things they can learn and duplicate faster than they would on their own. I'm not actually talking about what they can just use. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 2, 2018 at 16:54
  • $\begingroup$ Resources will result in some developments being faster. For example, if one has aluminum around then things like mirror telescopes are much easier to figure out how to make. So they'll end up likely figuring out the basic setup of the solar system much earlier than they might otherwise. $\endgroup$
    – JoshuaZ
    Commented Sep 2, 2018 at 16:57
  • $\begingroup$ That's the kind of thing I'm after. What other advancements might they gain from the resources present? $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 2, 2018 at 16:59
  • $\begingroup$ @ThomasMyron But your question asks "what advances would the Sumerian civilization immediately gain?" If they invent telescopes after only 1000 years instead of 4500, that's hardly an immediate gain, is it? $\endgroup$
    – abarnert
    Commented Sep 2, 2018 at 18:26
  • $\begingroup$ @abarnert I guess 'immediate advantage' might have been the wrong wording. The advantages don't need to be immediate, but I don't want them to take thousands of years. I guess the answer is that they'll figure everything out eventually... but what would they be able to figure out faster than they would otherwise, and how long would it take? $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 5:45

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