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The world I'm building contains two sapient species; one is about Mesolithic-level in terms of technology, while the other is about as advanced as the ancient Egyptians or Sumerians. However, they're only found on one of three continents on the planet*, and almost all of the population has access to the same level of technology.

*There have been travellers who have explored the other lands, but only in small parties - there are no permanent settlements elsewhere.

How could this possibly be true? By the time the Egyptians were around, there were humans not only in Africa but also Europe, Asia, the Americas and Australia. Some clarifications:

  • The other continents are not especially difficult to reach
  • The continent the species is found on is about two-thirds the size of the Americas together
  • The other continents have mild, relatively un-harsh environments

So, how could an intelligent race progress technologically to Sumerian/Egyptian-level technology, while remaining on a single 30,000 sqkm continent, even though they have the capacity to colonize other lands and survive there?

Note the last part of the question, which rules out "they're too far away" or "it's too dangerous" as answers. Ideally, an answer should suggest a cultural ideology or decision so that the sapients deliberately choose not to expand, despite the obvious economic gains.

If I have left out any details, please ask and I will provide them.

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    $\begingroup$ Arthur C. Clarke wrote a story along these lines. His answer was that the advanced species was incapable of swimming, so never built boats or ships. Even then, they would up building boats and ships and exploring and colonizing. Exploration was merely delayed a few thousand years. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Oct 27 '18 at 17:14
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    $\begingroup$ When the ancient Egyptians or Sumerians were around the people in the Americas were in the neolithic at best, so putting them in the mesolithic is not a big stretch. New Zealand and Madagascar were uninhabited until very much later, so the only difference is that in your fantasy world Madagascar is much bigger and Zealandia has a lot more land above water. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Oct 27 '18 at 18:55
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    $\begingroup$ @user535733 Which shows the perils of speculating in areas you don't understand, even for someone as smart as Clarke. Swimming is not a prerequisite for boats - in fact many sailors historically have drowned after accidents because they couldn't swim. $\endgroup$ – Graham Oct 28 '18 at 7:55
  • $\begingroup$ Are both sapients on the one continent? or just the more advanced? $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Oct 28 '18 at 13:20
  • $\begingroup$ @SerbanTanasa No, they're on different continents, and know very little about each other. $\endgroup$ – SealBoi Oct 28 '18 at 13:43

14 Answers 14

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How can a sapient species build an advanced civilization, while remaining on one continent?

Firstly let me describe your relationship to your home continent: - Sapience does not signify a lack of superstition, the question refers to Ancient-Egyptian technological level culture. This is congruent with a pantheistic, or polytheistic civilisation. Your other more primitive culture may be animistic.

Your religion and traditions include mythological significance for all the animals and plants on your home continent. They all have personal meaning to each of your population, representing a connection to the ancestors, to friends and family, to the spirits of good and bad fortune and harmony and order.

Your medicines are here and are linked to a strong spiritual tradition on which your people can rely. Your household Gods are to be found in the sacred places here and in signs familiar and understood by your people for ages past, in the rocks, in the trees in the sight of the distant mountain of bones, where burials take place, and in the change of seasons that characterises the rythyms of sewing, tending, harvest and renewal - the rythyms of your life.

Your Life tree has already been planted in the garden of your people, it is growing strong, but you must tend it regularly and pay the ancestor's trees with tending - whispering to them the secrets of your heart.

The seasonal celebrations give you hope and good cheer, and you know that soon you are destined to bond to the life-mate your people have chosen and start planting trees for your younglings in the garden of life.

The new land:

The exploration party pulls the boat to the shore dragging it a little way. What is this foreign land?

Exploring the land, your gods are not to be found. Everything is different - even those plants and animals that appeare familiar - they are different in ways that make them seem alien and threatening. Your sacred places are far away, you seek for signs of the spirits of ancestors - ambiguity and confusion is all that can be found - spiritual desolation.

The weather changes suddenly to a cold North wind and there are storm clouds. A sense of intense gloom overcomes the party. Unknown predatory eyes, movement are glimpsed in the dark, unaccustomed sounds - eerie in the strange light. Everyone is on edge. What foul and ravenous demons would we find in these shadows you shudder to ask yourself.

Your supplies run low and the local plants are strange to taste. You miss your family, you miss your home, you fear to miss out on the life you could have. You vote to leave these unknown shores, so do all - there is relief and merriment as the boat is launched again for familiar shores.

The journey home, we delight each other with stories of terrors of the evil place that almost took our lives. We take comfort that we will tell these stories of terror and almost-heroism to our kin at home, for we have no gold or riches plundered. No vanquished giant's skulls, no dragons teeth.

Home. Familiar sounds, the smell of cooking. They ask "Well" ? No there was nothing there, barren landscape, soulless - no point in going there again, glad to be home again.

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    $\begingroup$ When I first saw the OP, I was thinking something similar. Such as: "What if the most popular food crop from a warmer continent doesn't grow properly (if at all) on a chilly Northern continent? Cold, cloudy climate, or lack of certain minerals in the soil, or something else is wrong. What if the early explorers take this as a sign that the Northern land is cursed by the gods and decent, civilized people should take the hint and stay away from it?" $\endgroup$ – Lorendiac Oct 28 '18 at 23:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Lorendiac I wrote that in about 40 minutes (several times), keep wanting to edit it. Damned if I don't want to write the damned story now. What I had in mind was the raiders - Vikings if you will - who discovered America, with a little nod to Snorri Sturluson. $\endgroup$ – Hoyle's ghost Oct 29 '18 at 1:22
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    $\begingroup$ While an admirable answer this is all wrong - the simple fact is we live on a planet where (by an amazing coincidence) there or no isolated continents. It is absolutely trivial to get from anywhere to anywhere. @Willk 's answer is the correct one! $\endgroup$ – Fattie Oct 29 '18 at 5:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Fattie I upvoted his answer because I somewhat agree.That beiing said, the tags "Reality Check" and "Hard Science" didn't turn up, so I went freestyle with my answer. $\endgroup$ – Hoyle's ghost Oct 29 '18 at 21:50
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Open ocean.

With the still-mysterious possible exception of the Australian aborigines, up until 1500 BC everywhere humans got they walked. Europe, Asia and Africa are contiguous, and during the ice age you could walk to the Americas because sea levels were low. The Polynesians made the first convincing long distance overseas colonization in 1500 BC which is about the tech level of your people. Madagascar can be reached by typical shore-hugging boats and people did not even do that until around 500 BC.

Open ocean is daunting. Conditions are unfamiliar and scary and dangerous - this without monsters. There is not a whole lot of reason to go out there - fishing is better near shore and you can find your way home. Put 500+ miles of open ocean between your continent and the undiscovered countries. That will keep them undiscovered.

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    $\begingroup$ I feel this is probably the best answer. It's easy to forget that here on our planet, all the continents are basically touching - there is NOWHERE that is actually difficult to get to. In the story, all you'd have to say is "the continents were small and very separated, with NO island chains" - and you have it. $\endgroup$ – Fattie Oct 29 '18 at 5:16
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    $\begingroup$ It is factually wrong, unfortunately. There are human made tools on Cyprus dating from the age of the Neanderthaler. They must have reached Cyprus by boat. $\endgroup$ – jknappen Oct 29 '18 at 15:23
  • $\begingroup$ @jknappen - that is cool stuff and I had not seen it before. Now I am digging for a map of the ice age mediterranean. $\endgroup$ – Willk Oct 29 '18 at 21:53
  • $\begingroup$ @Fattie - um, I think you might be underestimating the difficulty of historical travel a lot - traveling the world was not "trivial", but a crazy determined level of effort, risk, and inventing technologies. Effort which, I think, might be turned to sea travel in a world with small isolated continents. People would probably develop a lot of sea travel tech early, and in depth. Also, water roads have historically been much easier to travel than by land (I think trade routes would willingly double their length to include segments by river/ocean) so it might even be easier for them to develop $\endgroup$ – Megha Dec 11 '18 at 0:49
  • $\begingroup$ I get what you're saying but the question is basically about "a single land mass" - in fact that's what we have on Earth ! $\endgroup$ – Fattie Dec 11 '18 at 7:05
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Their birthrate is so low while their primary area is so abundance.

So the population is already scarce and they already in comfort. Why you need to built a new settlement when you and your peaceful life is guaranteed inside your kingdom since your grand-grandfather?

The one who venture outside will be just a small band of thrill-seeker;their journal also contains a boring pretty much same but dull in comparison with the primary continent, as they also end up back home. Or exiled that wouldn't last 3 generations as these sapiens is even more fragile in birthing process our real world counterpart, nobody in their right mind would even try to bear offspring outside the complex healthcare support that primary continent have.

Even if all this condition will fail to prevent colony in the future, this scenario could halt colonizing process by few generations.

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    $\begingroup$ So Hobbits, basically? There and back again. $\endgroup$ – Alchymist Oct 27 '18 at 23:38
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There's no place like home.

Humans have an almost insatiable sense of adventure. Show us a hill, and we'll try to see what's on the other side. Tell us we'll be locked up in a cramped wooden box for months on end, quite likely to starve and/or drown, but dangle the prospect of discovery of new lands in front of us, and we'll sign up. There have been many people in history who have abandoned all that they knew, packed up their family (even infants!) and left with nothing but the rumor of opportunity in distant lands.

Part of this is due to the fact we're descended from nomadic hunter-gathers. Settled living is rather a recent invention for us. For most of human history people haven't been tied to a single place. They may have stayed in a particular place for a bit, but would move around over time, based on where food and shelter were. We don't need to constantly move, but when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

I lay that background to propose an alternative: imagine a culture descended from a sedentary species. I'm thinking of things like rabbits or those crabs which live in burrows. That sort of species will have a completely different mindset when it comes to adventure. The burrow is home. The burrow is safety. The burrow is food. Going away from the burrow is dangerous. Sure, you can travel, but you definitely want to be back home by nightfall. When danger strikes, the instinct is to run back to a burrow (preferably your burrow) and hole up defensively.

A civilization descended from such a species would likely be rather more "home-focused". You'd probably stay in the same town you were born in (and be glad of it). Some hardy folks might go off and found new towns when the old ones get crowded, but they're probably going to stay close to home to do so. It would seem odd or "icky" to contemplate going off somewhere where you couldn't return "home" in a relatively easy fashion.

Certainly there would be some oddballs who think nothing of jumping on a ship and heading across the ocean (being away from "home" for months or years on end *shudders*) which is why a few travelers have discovered the other continents, but they're the exception. Most people are good, solid folks who stay home, where fate and good fortune put them.

Such a sedentary civilization could certainly develop advanced technology. In fact, it might advance science faster than humans have, given that any intrinsic curiosity would be directed inward rather than to go out and explore new lands.

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This is more WHY not HOW.

And I'm not sure it's possible. Both technological development and migration take place over multiple generations. Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of years.

How long has your community existed and been able to move around their own continent? That's how long they would have needed a reason not to go to a different continent. Or at least when their tech got to the point where those small groups of explorers did it.

Cultural ideologies don't last that long. We're talking at least thousands of years, right?

Your only hope is some sort of physical barrier that requires more advanced tech than they have (though the fact that some people have made it there and returned will belay that). They'd have to be reporting that the other continent isn't suitable for settlement. And you've said that isn't the case...

The physical barrier could be geographic, climate, foods that are indigestible (so travelers can bring their own food but can't live there...though this explanation wouldn't really happen), other peoples or animals who prey on this species, alien tech that stops them from migrating, I don't know, something.

But culture morphs a lot over the millennia and that just won't work as a reason.

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    $\begingroup$ "Cultural ideologies don't last that long. We're talking at least thousands of years, right?" +1 for that. It's simply impossible that a culture moves from hunter-gatherer to early agriculture to city builders and does not alter their ideology. Heck, it's nearly impossible that ideology even stays the same during the lifespan of a mere human. Ideologies are volatile, changing with generations, technology, and the experiences people make. $\endgroup$ – Thern Oct 29 '18 at 16:24
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One of the main problems in Ancient agriculture is that land gets less fertile after repeated harvestings.

As civilization advances and villages turn into cities, they need large quantities of land to feed their population. And those lands can be too far away because a loaded cart can do only 25 km in a full day, so farmers need to be able to get to their lands and into the safety of the walled city each day. So the same lands are worked each year, without letting them regenerate.

In fact, impoverished land is cited as one of the causes of the Bronze Age Collapse (c. 1200 BC) and also the reason why the Egyptians suffered that collapse a bit less: the Nile brought, each year, new fertile land with its floodings.

So your civilization with Egyptian-level technology remains in the 30,000 sqkm continent because it's incredibly fertile. Maybe there is a yearly flooding, maybe a massive migration of insects that die and fertilize the terrain... something that keeps the land productive.

When your civilization made attempts to colonize other continents, the land around the villages stopped being fertile after three or four years and famine and disease followed.

Maybe the sages of your civilization call it a curse. Maybe they think they are priviliged because they live in a land that it's always productive while the rest of the world doesn't want to yield food.

Whatever explanation, they don't leave their continent because they would die of hunger.

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    $\begingroup$ It can get easier: The other continents simply have different soil, which doesn't fit to the plants our civilization knows and likes (wrong pH or similar). $\endgroup$ – Paŭlo Ebermann Oct 29 '18 at 19:02
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I'll take an answer from Earth history: disease.

If the less advanced continents are home to a virulent, parasite-spread disease that the more advanced culture has no treatment for, it would be a really good reason not to colonize those areas.

As a parallel, both malaria and yellow fever acted as potent barriers to colonization at different times in African and Central America. The disease wouldn't even have to be more virulent than either of those, just more widespread on the other continents.

Further, the disease would be a good justification for the people on the infected continents failing to advance technologically. Either the population depletion from the disease would inhibit civilization, or adaptations to avoid the disease (e.g. sickle-cell anemia) might interfere with their cognitive development, creativity, or just ability to work.

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  • $\begingroup$ Pretty good answer +1. $\endgroup$ – Hoyle's ghost Oct 29 '18 at 21:27
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Human cultures varied greatly in their dedication to exploration, colonization, and settlement. The Polynesians found almost every island in the Pacific. Other nearby civilizations with greater populations and technology were not as comprehensive in terms of colonization.

I don't think you need to overthink it -- some cultures just don't prioritize resettlement as much. There's a concept in social psychology called "Sense of Place" that contributes to how attached people are to where they grew up. This can be stronger in some groups than others, and might contribute to how much of a drive to resettle there is.

For literary examples, Tolkien has a couple quick sentences on Hobbits not being prone to adventure, then he has a counterexample, and it's all perfectly clear to the reader.

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So a few things about technology and population spread:

1) The earth was populated and its ecology permanently d̶a̶m̶a̶g̶e̶d̶, uh, altered by hunter-gatherers. For instance, most of the large fauna of the Americas was exterminated during the initial wave of colonization (unlike their Eurasian cousins, these beasts had not evolved a healthy fear of hominids during millions of years of coexistence with previous versions). The iconic steppe Native Americans were riding on horses that were introduced by the Europeans only centuries prior. The process was as slow as it was simple: conflict by one band with their cousins tended to push the groups on the edge of the expansion wave forward into unpopulated lands, where the hunting was still better.

2) The predominantly climate-driven E-W spread of agriculture across Eurasia and North Africa was brilliantly explained in Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs and Steel. By contrast, the N-S primary axis of the Americas made the spread of Potatoes and Corn a lot slower, since those plants did not initially thrive in radically different climates.

What do we take from these 2 points? It's easy to restrict an agricultural society to a set of fertile plains along one primary climate band, whereas it's almost impossible to stop a hunter-gatherer wave from enveloping the planet, unless you have literally impassable terrain blocking the way: vast glaciers, unrelenting scorching deserts, hundreds of km of water, etc.

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If the population of your more advanced continent were intelligent and pervasively empathetic (Think of it as a whole civilization of "bleeding heart liberals") they would be reluctant to endanger native tribes they encountered.

In our society we have a large number of people that are sociopaths that aren't really that upset by harming others (in particular those who we can see as "different" from ourselves)--without this trait we would, for instance, have found it next to impossible to "settle" America. War would be rare.

Perhaps in your world this is the norm and our development would be abnormal?

So in your world, the civilizations know about each other but perhaps the more advanced one is reluctant to "Contaminate" the more primitive (something we have finally figured out is a good approach--although we have to actively protect more primitive cultures from the sociopaths in our society).

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The species is allergic to seawater and dust blown in from the ocean. They therefore avoid the coasts. They lack coastal industries. They neither cross the oceans, nor follow coastlines to new continents.

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Well, if you are willing to let go "The other continents are not especially difficult to reach" clause, then an interesting way to accomplish your task would be this: put your planet somewhere near the center of the Galaxy, and get rid of the moon. Now, the night sky no longer has separate stars and constellations — it is covered in stars all over and is probably almost as bright as the daylight would be. That means that celestial navigation without an accurate clock is now almost impossible (you still have the Sun, of course, but that's it).

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If their home continent has no offshore islands, and no large inland bodies of water, it might not even occur to them that they can travel across water. When someone does eventually invent a boat, everyone is saying there is nothing out there but the edge of the world. Nevertheless, he sails off over the horizon never to be seen again. That doesn't need to happen too many times for the people to believe that their continent and the ocean surrounding it, are all there is in the world.

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Perhaps the advanced species lives in symbiosis with a tree. They regularly need to inhale the pollen of the tree making it hard to travel more than a few days out to sea since the withdrawal effects will kill them.

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