Instead of Earth as we know it, humans evolved on a slightly smaller, habitable earthlike planet with different geography. Due to the plot reasons, I would like to keep them confined to one (large) continent with no seafaring until they achieve late-19th century tech level, delaying the age of discovery (this world contains other significant lands, but they should not be discovered by mankind too early).

But how can I achieve this? I was thinking mostly about the geographical reasons so far, and came up with following:

  • the sole inhabited continent should be remote from all others (pretty obvious)
  • strong currents along coast making seafaring in small boats dangerous (and without mastering the small boats, large ships will not be developed)
  • the coastline should be relatively simple, with no peninsulas and significant islands - pretty much like Africa in our world
  • ideally, the coastline should be a barren wasteland with no trees and Atacama-like deserts, so humans will have little incentive to live there and experiment with boats (and no building material for boats in the first place)
  • no big lakes to experiment with boats inland
  • fertile lands, where human civilization developed, should be locked deep in the continent's interior, ideally separated from the coast by mountain ranges and deserts

Is it believable, that such conditions may prevent humans from becoming sailors and expanding to other continents? What else can I do?

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ I'd never thought I'd used this in a serious context but RELEASE THE KRAKEN! $\endgroup$ – Renan Oct 12 '18 at 19:57
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "the coastline should be relatively simple, with no peninsulas and significant islands - pretty much like Africa in our world". Africa has a very complicated coast line. Just go to Google Maps, zoom into Africa and you'll see a lot of points, bays, peninsulas, etc. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Oct 12 '18 at 20:28
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Also, you can't have a continent-perimeter "barren wasteland with no trees and Atacama-like deserts". Continents are just too large and varied, and deserts like the Atacama can't form around the whole thing. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Oct 12 '18 at 20:31
  • $\begingroup$ Of course, you can just make your continent like that anyway. Only geologists and obsessive nerds will call you out on it... $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Oct 12 '18 at 20:32
  • $\begingroup$ @RonJohn Ok, point taken, but I meant the contrast between Africa and Europe, which has quite a lot of peninsulas, inland seas and islands just near the coast - AFAIK it's considered as one of the possible reasons why Europeans mastered sea travel, but I may be wrong. $\endgroup$ – Ijon Oct 12 '18 at 20:36


Your planet has a very effective species similar to Teredo. They destroy any wooden hulls in a few days or weeks. You can adjust the description of the species to prevent ocean travel but not river/lake travel by making it a saltwater species.

  • An iron or steel hull would be immune.
  • If there is river travel, you have to explain why simple coppering is not effective.
    • The worms are tiny and get into cracks?
    • The worms can live out of the water for a short period and climb up the hull?
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Aggressive sea termites was where my head went when reading the question. I didn't know we had something similar here on Earth though. On top of the actual physical activity of eating the wood you could have them produce some sort of acid as a waste product. Even something simple like lye. If released in the tunnels caused by eating it would serve to dissolve the cellulose in the wood and soften it, making it easier to eat, and harder to try and patch for the sailors. The chemical composition of lye is NaOH, so plenty of the base materials in the ocean. $\endgroup$ – Crouse Oct 13 '18 at 10:56

There are no trees suitable for shipbuilding

Wood was pretty much the only game in town for seafaring until metal ships became practical. Without proper wood, there would be no sea travel until about the industrial age.

This of course can cause problems in other areas where wood was crucial, but for most things there are suitable alternatives: buildings would be mostly earthen/stone/thatch, abundant coal could provide easy fuel, etc.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ You can have trees with unusually dense woods that can’t float on their own. I’m pretty sure there are some real world examples (lignum vitae springs to mind?), and without any evidence they float people won’t think to use them to make boats. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Oct 13 '18 at 7:47
  • $\begingroup$ This concept could be further refined simply by selecting certain species of trees and removing them from existence on the world in question, while leaving others. Leave trees that don't get tall enough or thick enough, or strong enough, etc., to be used in anything but the smallest vessels, and you have plenty for use as fuel or land-based construction, etc. $\endgroup$ – Dalila Oct 16 '18 at 18:35

Release the Kraken

That's one loving big calamari

I believe this is self explanatory.

To add some variety, look at the Carta Marina, a map of the nordic lands from 1519. It contains a plethora of other sea monsters, such as these:

Sea monsters

Because medieval waters were to sailors what current day Australia is to land dwellers.


I do not think you can prevent boat use on rivers and lakes. People will see broken trees floating on them, then tie them into rafts, then start shaping them.

You can limit coastal boating with severe seas (Iceland comes to mind). Or make water much more salty, making sea-food inedible.

Also based on Iceland, minimize or eliminate tall trees. Just have plains, marshes, moorland. No trees = no big boats. They can still make rafts from bundles of grass, but they fall apart in rough seas.

Make other continents small and locate them far from main continent. And have winds and currents that make it hard to reach them. So reaching other lands in sail ships is very hard, and finding them is harder, and getting back is nearly impossible. Since nobody ever returned with news of other lands, people just assume that there is nothing to explore.

Also make travel within the main continent easier. RL exploration started as an easier way to get to India (which was known, but hard to reach by land). SO: Lots of long wide rivers, few mountain ranges or deserts. You could also have internal seas or lakes, but that encourages big boats.

  • $\begingroup$ "one (large) continent" without any large trees? Unless it's Antarctica or a continent-sized desert, I'm dubious of that. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Oct 12 '18 at 20:45
  • $\begingroup$ Also, Icelanders were seafaring, so it's not the ideal model. $\endgroup$ – David Thornley Oct 12 '18 at 21:37
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ +1 for making sea-food inedible. High-risk + no-reward = no-sea-travel. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Oct 13 '18 at 6:02

on a planet with a large nearby moon, tidal forces would be immense.

in such a situation, or perhaps a climate heating scenario inducing similar instability, hurricanes would be frequent, even constant, rendering coastal living unsustainable. as a result, the populace lives inland, away from the worst of the storms.

in such an environment, reliable sea-travel might have to be submarine, which would require a great deal of industrial/technical development before being developed.

seamanship could still be developed in inland lakes. a continent without water-shed in the form of rivers & lakes makes no sense.

  • $\begingroup$ A change in the planet's moon isn't always necessary, one can also change topography to increase tides, although in the latter may not be possible for an entire continent's coast. It would be a benefit, and both can be done. Soil that leads to landslides, or sinking either rapidly or slowly could also aid in the deterring people from settling there. As another mentioned swamps, marshes, and moors can help make some parts of a coast less than ideal. $\endgroup$ – BlindingLight Oct 18 '18 at 2:34
  • $\begingroup$ @BlindingLight - yes, that all makes sense. i was going for the one-stop shopping factor to inhibit all coastal living at a stroke ;) $\endgroup$ – theRiley Oct 18 '18 at 5:46

There are two challenges posed by your question.

Early migration

The first relates to early human migration. Of course, we know that the European "age of discovery" involved very little discovery and that actually most places "discovered" by Europeans between the 15th to 19th centuries were already inhabited by homo sap communities. Therefore, you need to think about what stopped humans from spreading out across your world in its prehistory. Isolation of your inhabited continent won't do it: Polynesians and Melanesians used small outrigger canoes to settle islands thousands of kilometres apart, thousands of years ago.

Rather than looking for environmental or geographic reasons to impede seafaring, why don't you establish a culture that is, for some reason, historically averse to travelling over water, or exploration, and then an event in recent history which changes that?

Preconditions for industrial revolution

The second challenge relates to the implications for industrialisation if you remove seafaring. I am referring here to to mercantile capitalism and the global networks of exchange that emerged as European powers started to develop technologies such as square-rigging and establish themselves overseas; seizing new natural resources, exploiting new labour forces, creating new markets, etc.

The fundamental problem is whether the industrial revolution would even have been possible without this prior stage, and I would argue that it would not have.

Look at China, the empire of a thousand year dynasties that has more often than not been ahead of the pack throughout history. The Haijin policy of maritime isolationism following Admiral Zheng He's expedition to Africa in the Ming Dynasty inhibited China's participation in mercantile capitalism - and therefore the institutional (in terms of property rights, etc) and technological developments that laid the foundations for industrial revolution. Result is that China has only recently "caught up" with the countries that had their industrial revolutions earlier.

Think also of cotton, the driver of the industrial revolution across Europe. Cotton's story is inherently one of mercantile, globe-straddling war capitalism: labour ripped from West and Central Africa, transported across the ocean to the Americas to work as slaves growing high-quality cotton on fertile grounds seized by Europeans from native populations, all in order to undercut Indian growers, spinners and weavers and ensure the domination of merchants in London and Antwerp, and mills in Liverpool and Alsace-Lorraine.

The golden age of cotton was borne of seafaring, a triangular trade: finished cotton goods from English mills to African traders for slaves, slaves sold to the Americas where ships loaded raw cotton that was then transported to European centres of cotton production. Without seafaring, would the mechanised mills that powered the industrial revolution have come to pass?

I think this is a harder challenge to meet. To create a realistic, early-industrial world absent seafaring will require you to generate a material, political and technological history that meets the conditions of Earth's mercantile period but unfolds across one continent only.


Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.