Imagine a world things evolved slightly different: plants never evolved into trees. There are bushes, herbs, mosses, etc, but no trees. Thus no wood to make planks, nor for building.

Given abundant resources of coal and any metals or other needed materials, could a bunch of humans dropped here with nothing develop a technological society or would they be stuck in some kind of a primitive stone age?

If we look back at our history, wood was so omnipresent that I have a hard time convincing myself it was not necessary. At the same time, with today's technology it does not seem to be that necessary any more.

So maybe another path, without wood, could have led to the same technology levels as we have today on Earth?

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    $\begingroup$ things like bamboo (of the grass family), large bones and rock could take over for early building material before metal structures become prevalent $\endgroup$ – ratchet freak Oct 10 '14 at 10:23
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    $\begingroup$ Would coal deposits even form without wood? $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 10 '14 at 10:27
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    $\begingroup$ Consider that your society could breed bushes, bamboo or whatever to be more like wood. (Compare for example how maize is a highly bred plant that cannot reproduce without human help.) $\endgroup$ – Wrzlprmft Oct 10 '14 at 11:22
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    $\begingroup$ Reading the answers to this I can't help but think of a Dwarf Fortress game with a particularly challenging embark location. $\endgroup$ – aslum Oct 10 '14 at 15:38
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    $\begingroup$ @TimB coal can, and did, formed without trees. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal#Formation : peat bogs, algae. Carboniferous plants were not trees but plants like ferns (even if they were tall and huge). $\endgroup$ – Peter M. - stands for Monica Oct 10 '14 at 21:09

10 Answers 10


You'd need to replace wood in 2 ways:

  • As a construction material
  • As an energy source

If I understand the question correctly, you're saying "Given abundant resources of coal and any metals or other needed materials" but you don't mean that said materials are lying about, just that they exist. In other words, I'm assuming said humans still need to mine ores and coal.

Construction material

Finding other construction materials may not be that hard - there's bone for small projects, although it isn't as easy to shape and you can't get it in quantities that are easy to work with when you need to make something solid.

The obvious other choice is stones - which were used a lot, but were also abandoned pretty quickly. Stones are hard to work with, heavy and you can't easily form arbitrary shapes from them (a stone sword, for instance, is hard to craft without getting rid of most of the stone - not that it's a practical thing to make anyway, but thin, long objects are a lot easier to make with wood than stone).

If these humans where given enough time, I guess they could do pretty well with just these - it would take the more time, due to the added difficulty, but they might be making pretty advanced constructs eventually.

edit - Zibbobz suggests that clay could be used as a construction material (including making ovens).

Energy source

This is tougher. Coal requires mining implements (unless you find it loose, which isn't going to be common) and was usually created in large amounts from wood, which is out of the picture. So all you get is coal ore. Oil is generally going to be too deep to get and not easy to refine (although you might not need to refine it per se, at an early stage). I'd say they'd need to find another source, before getting to coal, but once they get there, it may serve as a replacement for wood (maybe not for home fires though).

Burning dried shrubbery might allow the creation of fires, although it would be very inefficient - huge quantities would be needed, probably compressed to make log equivalents.

There's other minerals such as nitre which, if your humans are amazing at getting the energy out of things, might be able to use without blowing up (doubtful).

Cheap fuel seems to be gone unless you have some form of composing biological fuels - maybe some form of composting would help.

edit - TimB adds that peat would probably be the best fuel source in this case - Stendika also suggested that dry animal dung (apparently also known as 'buffalo chips' which I wasn't aware of) could be used as a fuel. superluminary reminds that animal fat can also be used, such as in candles.

Metals really don't come into this picture in my opinion - you need tools to extract them, unless you find small quantities lying around and while they can serve as a construction material, that's only after you've been able to find the tougher ones in large enough quantities. Metals only serve as an energy source with modern technology and even then, only in quite specific and high-tech situations.

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    $\begingroup$ Peat would probably be the best fuel source in this scenario. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 10 '14 at 10:56
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    $\begingroup$ In a world as you describe with typical coal reserves we probably never get around to metal because nothing gets hot enough and natural elemental metal is too soft. I also think stone as a wood substitute (for anything different than small weapons) becomes unlikely, as hours-to-make vs hours-to-break quickly goes into the red. $\endgroup$ – Black Oct 10 '14 at 11:22
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    $\begingroup$ My last comment was wrong in terms of coal being the limiting factor. I just looked up peat and it generates more than enough heat to melt iron and in fact can collect it. hurstwic.org/history/articles/manufacturing/text/bog_iron.htm fao.org/docrep/x5872e/x5872e0b.htm $\endgroup$ – Black Oct 10 '14 at 11:46
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    $\begingroup$ @ivy_lynx en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dry_animal_dung_fuel $\endgroup$ – Epiglottal Axolotl Oct 10 '14 at 14:44
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    $\begingroup$ It would also be possible to burn animal fat like a large candle. $\endgroup$ – superluminary Oct 10 '14 at 15:23

So basically if our stiffest fiber comes from a bush could they get decent tech...

Sure they could! (Now start your extinction counter because it's going to be tough.)

Making metal tools with coal could be discovered relatively easily. But for your first real resource you have stone, which is time-consuming to shape. Bone is our level 2 weapon and we scavenge for it whenever we can. Since we have no sticks really, we can't get spears (bones are too curvy and stone too fragile). If you think to our Earthling cavemen, this means our level 2 bone weapons are pretty much daggers. We do get textiles as normal though, due to bone needles. If we manage to land some big game we have leather to make slings and become much better off. So you have a rock to throw, then a dagger, then a sling. Pretty much going to be living 24/7 safari zone.

Depending on the temperature, wood becomes critically important as firewood. Brush doesn't last long enough when it's so cold that fire is a requirement.

Although, if there's a ton of coal... If you have so much coal that the local past-time is seeing how big you can get a bonfire... Then you're probably going to have fire weapons almost the instant someone gets around to lighting one. On that note, fire's going to be a problem to make, if bush wood doesn't get big or strong enough to make a fire by hand. We're going to end up with wide-spread fire a smidgen later, which means more time in our vulnerable phase.

Once you get to metal though, you actually speed through those ages faster as they become that much better.

Although hastened metal progress may very well be offset by the fact that a massive amount of prototyping was done with wood because it was easy to shape. That may in turn raise the value of other prototyping materials like wax and clay.


some bushes could be used for small construction. Buck-thorn and sumac can get large enough to use for spears, and ribs in small structures like tents or huts.

For fuel, if you look at the north america plains, Bison (Buffalo Chips) provided the materials for campfires.

Granted neither of these solutions would make things easy to advance technology but considering how big our plains are and similar places in other countries, the Serengeti, the Russian Steppe, survival isn't based on wood. However, the mongols are the closest culture to advance themselves from this environment and admittedly that was a lot of stolen ideas from the conquered.

Almost forgot, in the American prairie, a lot of construction was done with sod, both digging down and building up the walls.


In addition to the other answers citing construction and energy, transportation would also be a big problem.

Early carriage wheels were made of wood, and used to transport people and goods. I don't think there would be a good alternative for early civilizations. It would also limit sailing to small rafts rather than ships.

Transportation, and therefore trading, will suffer and the civilization would end up as a collection of separate settlements with no means to exchange goods and knowledge

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    $\begingroup$ Yes transport would suffer but the Native Americans had two alternatives, one was the travois, not as good as the wheel but an OK substitute, though you'd be constrained by the size of the brush, and canoes were sometimes made from whale bone and hides $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Oct 10 '14 at 13:31
  • $\begingroup$ @bowlturner That seems like the best alternative, but they still wouldn't be able to sustain an international trading route like the Silk Road for example. And unless all resources are locally available, trading is a vital part of progress $\endgroup$ – Tymric Oct 10 '14 at 13:42
  • $\begingroup$ I don't know, the Inca, Aztec and Maya didn't have the wheel, and they were pretty amazing $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Oct 10 '14 at 13:45
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    $\begingroup$ Also, in the desert, transportation on the back of camels (without any wheels) was standard for a very long time; I guess in a world without wheel material, but with large animals (for example horses or elephants) transport on the back of animals would still be quite efficient. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Oct 11 '14 at 13:44
  • $\begingroup$ Beasts of burden would be immensely popular without wheels. They could even pull large sleds made of tied-together reeds. Though it'd be a bumpy ride. $\endgroup$ – Zibbobz Oct 15 '14 at 18:50

If you have plants and a land based intelligence chances are you will eventually get wood.

One of my first thoughts here was instead of going the stone route for development, go with the biological route. All technological growth is spurred by biological advantages. Then I got thinking: one of the first things I am going to do is use plants to grow together to create a living structure. Eventually this is going to lead to a wood or wood-like plant that serves so many purposes. On Earth, plant cultivation goes back well before the start of recorded history and we have been developing specialized crops for that long as well.

However life that evolved in the sea is more likely to utilize chemical reactions and biological processes to develop their technologies.

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    $\begingroup$ Or consider ancient Egypt. Date palms are not good structural material. They seem to have used a lot of papyrus - I've been in a temple whose stone columns were carved to resemble large bundles of papyrus. How far would they have gone with a stone-and-papyrus technology if they had not been able to import cedars of Lebanon? $\endgroup$ – Patricia Shanahan Oct 10 '14 at 22:24

If you look at history, you'll find examples of cultures in areas with little wood who found substitutes for most uses. For example, Mesopotamian cultures used sun-dried brick as their main construction material; other cultures used stone or kiln-fired brick. Northern Europe used peat and later coal as fuel, having exhausted their forests. Wood-based paper was actually a late development, replacing parchment and papyrus. But there's one exception:


The only real limitation is water travel. None of the wood-poor cultures I'm aware of built anything larger than a skin-over-frame canoe. Because of this, until your civilization is producing enough iron to make iron-hulled boats, it's likely that water travel will be limited to small-time traders and others who benefit from fast movement of small vessels. This has a surprisingly large impact on development and expansion patterns.

In real-world history, the ease with which anyone could build a raft or other watercraft meant that civilization developed around rivers and seas, which provided pre-made, rapid travel routes and easy access to distant locations. Cities sprang up at the mouths of rivers; armies were moved and supplied by sea; wars were fought over control of good harbors.

In your situation, none of that will happen. There will be an emphasis on land-based travel (mule trains, wagons, etc.), and the resulting focus will be on road-building and the control of land trade routes. Cities will be focused around resources and the routes between them, and you'll see wars fought over oases and mountain passes. There will be some focus on rivers as a supply of water, but the oceans and seas will be largely ignored.


In a world in which plants had never evolved into trees, humans would have many problems to develop a favorable environment for development.

Altough nowadays we could maintain most part of our technologie not using wood, it would be impossible to get this point without trees.

The most important reason is that many herbivores animals feed thanks to trees. Without them, it wouldn´t have been possible that that they survive. The main consequence of it is that carnivores would also have no feed enough, so humans wouldn´t be able to eat big animals which would complicate their evolution.

Moreover, the fact of not having to take food from trees or climbing them would suppose that people wouldn´t walk upright. Scientists assume that having free hands to take things was absolutely necessary to develop our brains.

For all these reasons I do not only think that humanity would never have achieved our technological level, but also it wouldn´t have appeared.

  • $\begingroup$ I've also read the hypothesis that walking upright was an adaptation to the savannah, to look over the high grass. And there are big herbivores that live off of grass (especially those herbivores we eat most: cattle). $\endgroup$ – celtschk Oct 11 '14 at 13:51
  • $\begingroup$ Although it's an interesting point that trees were vital to our particular evolutionary path in several ways, the question specifically mentions dropping already evolved humans into such an environment, so it is only the technology that needs to be considered, not human evolution. $\endgroup$ – trichoplax Oct 11 '14 at 14:33
  • $\begingroup$ I can't upvote this answer as it doesn't address the question, but I like your thinking. Welcome to worldbuilding - looking forward to seeing more from you. $\endgroup$ – trichoplax Oct 11 '14 at 14:38
  • $\begingroup$ Dealing with the issue, I think that it is too much abstract to try to assess the technological society development ignoring its effect on the evolution. $\endgroup$ – Zero point Oct 11 '14 at 15:54

I am missing cement here as possible building material that is potentially easier to work with than stone. For reference: The book of Mormon

Here a people is described that used a lot of cement while letting the trees grow, because there were not many trees to work with.

  • $\begingroup$ Wood is for more than building, and has some properties that give it an advantage in some uses over other materials. $\endgroup$ – Chad Oct 13 '14 at 0:45
  • $\begingroup$ Cement (And its brother Concrete) would be pretty useful in a no-wood society. $\endgroup$ – Zibbobz Oct 15 '14 at 18:52

Some people are taking our current materials impoverishment to mean that every world is like the world we are now living in.

Coal, and oil were readily available on the surface of the Earth. So much so, that in colonial times, sometimes when people started fires (of wood), they started them on top of exposed coal deposits (whoops!)

First oil wells were drilled where natural seepage pooled on the surface, and made asphalt as well.

Copper, and other materials (iron ore), were so readily accessible in Michigan and Minnesota that they threw off the compasses, and were exposed on the surface - ready to pick up and smelt.

Of course you're going to have to get it right the first time. If you don't have a hard take-off for your civilization, they'll use the easy to get at stuff and then have no easy way to get at the harder to reach stuff. Doing mountaintop removal to get at an open-pit mine while using moose antlers (or human skulls/shoulder blades if no other large animals are available) for shovels... well, that's expensive and time-consuming.

Someone else said there would be no wheels. That's not true. There would be no light-weight wheels. You'd get iron and stone wheels (think Flintstones) start with - the iron would be 'spoked' pretty quickly, not just for weight, but for materials savings. Eventually you'd get aluminium and then things would get better.

Boating would be difficult. You'd eventually have concrete boats, and metal ships. But only if you've got pumice or icebergs to learn from. Removing boating does a real number on trade, and means it will be difficult to do technology except where both coal and ores are close together. Michigan and Minnesota, even with wood, still ended up shipping their raw ore to where the coal was, instead of smelting in place.

Without lots of wheels, it will be difficult to come up with trains, your other big transport technology. Train track can be done with concrete railroad ties, but that's another heavy resource that can't be locally sourced, which makes train tech more costly, and harder to do.


One thing to add to the answers here. If there was no wood, how soon would composite materials have been developed and what could have been made from them?

In the modern world these are exemplified by synthetic fibres (glass, carbon, polymer) and synthetic resins. But you could form composites from natural fibers (cotton, hemp...) and natural resins ( e.g. linseed) or animal glues. That they weren't much in evidence until recently (putty excepred) may owe a lot to the easy availability of wood.

By the way you will have to decide if there is giant bamboo ( a grass!) or not. Bamboo can substitute for wood in many ways that banana leaves and palm "trees" can not. For example you can make spears, bows, arrows and multi storey housing from bamboo. In the far east they still spurn steel scaffolding poles in favour of giant bamboo and leather ties.

Oh, and without wood masonry would have been much restricted. How to substitute wooden cranes and levers for manipulating large blocks of stone, or wooden scaffolding for supporting arches during their construction? (Especially if no bamboo either)


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