On Earth, civilization grew up around river valleys. Rivers are useful as a water source, a food source, and a waste disposal system, but their most important function to a civilization is enabling travel and trade. It's fairly simple to build boats that can take you as far as you want (barring waterfalls or heavy rapids) and it's by far the cheapest way to transport bulk goods until you have railroads. Eventually you can build actual ships that can cross the seas, enabling much greater trade and cultural exchange.

Now imagine a situation where transport of people or goods by water is impossible/prohibited, e.g. due to religious belief (the "Plant my feet on solid ground" sect) or hostile wildlife in the water. Boats and the like are not built or used, ever, for transporting people or goods -- it's as if the "boat" feature was completely removed. Could civilization still develop? How would it be different compared to our Earth?

Note that rivers are not impenetrable barriers: No ferries allowed, but bridge-building is still possible (including pontoon bridges, though they must not be moved when people or goods are on them). Bodies of water still can be forded if they're shallow and narrow enough, though as @user535733 pointed out, ford sites would be very valuable and would probably be militarily defended and have tolls/customs booths, etc.

First case: a "from the ground up" civilization that's just left the stone age. If necessary, the civilization has the wheel, road-building (and sufficient population that building roads is feasible), and draft animals.

Second case: A 35th-century colony ship arrives on an untouched Earth-like planet; they have many motorized vehicles (including road construction equipment) plus the ability to fuel them and maintain them indefinitely, but no ability to build new ones until they establish an industrial base.

In both cases, how does a founder of a new settlement choose a site? How does civilization grow up around the settlement, compared to how it did in Earth? Does the restriction on trade and travel lead to more centralization of power and delayed scientific progress?

Related question: Why would people in 500+ years' time be using waterways for transport?

  • $\begingroup$ "Civilization grew up around river valleys": especially around the famous rivers of Greece. Quick quiz: name one river in Greece. (Fun fact: the city of Jerusalem is six thousand years old; there is no river anywhere near it. It does have a natural spring, though.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Sep 24, 2019 at 19:40
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP what are you talking about there are three rivers running through jerusalem, they are small but they are there. and they would have been quite a bit bigger when it was founded. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Sep 24, 2019 at 19:59
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP The main Spartan settlement was founded on the banks of the Eurotas river. The Cephissus river, the Ilisos and the Eridanos stream are the historical rivers of Athens. $\endgroup$ Sep 24, 2019 at 20:55
  • $\begingroup$ @ArkensteinXII agreed bring up a Greek watershed map and you can find a dozen major river and a slew of minor ones. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Sep 24, 2019 at 21:41
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    $\begingroup$ There's a big difference between "God hates boats, so live with fords" and "Nothing wrong with boats, but river transport is simply uneconomic," and each will cause quite different development patterns. For example, a king can dig out a ford, severing a trade link or an invasion route (and guard the site to keep outsiders from filling it back in), so that culture will grow along only one bank of the river. Please edit your question to clarify: Do you want rivers and lakes to become nearly-impenetrable barriers? Or do you simply want to know how much earlier railways get invented? $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Sep 25, 2019 at 0:02

2 Answers 2


It would still end up the same, despite not being able to use Rivers for Transports.

Water sources are important. It doesn't need to be a river, but a large lake, a spring or well would all work. Humans can only survive 3 days without water, so a large body of fresh and clean water means that you can basically ignore that aspect of survival. You don't need to spend hours every day hunting for water when its right next to you. You don't need to spend tons of money and space importing water in and storing it in large containers. Its just there for you to use.

For this reason, many early settlements are near a source of fresh water. Easy access to a vital resource. Easy waste disposal. Easy irrigation for farming. Easy access to a reliable food source (fish). Even without transport, these 4 factors provide a boost to any developing settlement.

Another aspect is easy transportation of wood. Yes I know you said no transport, but if I throw an entire tree into a river, there isn't much your monsters are going to do, to solid tree trunks. You also get easier access to mud (you need water) which can be used to craft makeshift houses/bricks and again help with the development of your settlement.

The biggest difference is that your settlements are likely going to be much closer together. As you mentioned water provides an easy way to transport goods and only having wheel based transport will limit the range your settlers are capable of exploring before they run out of resources and need to settle down.

Case 1

Build near a river. River provides water for your animals and your people. Gives you access to water to irrigate your crops. You can also fish as an emergency food resource. Easy waste disposal as well, because you can only lug so much crap around before you bury yourself in it.

Case 2

Industrial bases need water to help cool equipment and dispose of waste. Will also help you keep your population alive. You draw fresh water from upstream to use. Dump all your waste down stream.

  • $\begingroup$ So you think civilization will still be possible with closer-together settlements? I'd worry that the nearby settlements would compete with each other for resources, stunting the growth of the civilization. $\endgroup$
    – Snowbody
    Sep 26, 2019 at 15:39
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    $\begingroup$ I believe the initial settlements will be much closer together, because you can't just pack up everything and head down the river to find a new place. You would need to move along new roads and terrain which will take a toll on your resources. Once the initial settlements are established and proper roads built, your cities should still form a good distance apart because they act like more of a hub, drawing in resources from smaller towns and farming communities. $\endgroup$
    – Shadowzee
    Sep 26, 2019 at 23:51

Ah humanity, a tendency to overcome any such barriers in the path of technological progress. Hostile water life would be killed, a religious sect would be overrun by a group without such hangups. No such situation would be tolerated for particularly long. The great seafaring nations were those that overcame problems like shipworm, the wrath of the gods at sea (storms), and inaccurate navigation.

Case 1:

From the ground to the medieval. Water travel isn't that much of an issue apart from coracle base fishermen in this period. Cities are still built by rivers because they're a source of water. The great cities of today are built on tidal waterways, but in this world they'll be built on freshwater rivers. Tidal waters are still a good source of food (fish).

The bigger issue is that any growing civilisation is bound to a single land mass. If there are islands they can't be accessed, new continents cannot be discovered. If Doggerland sinks, the people on the far side are forever an isolated population. The biggest change is in the great European empires. The Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians and others, based around easy access to the Mediterranean and its relatively friendly waters, they're all gone from history. Instead you get more Chinese and Mongol style empires, based around horses and the open plains. How far and how fast can a man ride. You have space for great empires, Asian Steppe, European Plain, North America, Sub-Saharan Africa.

The industrial age. Since the age of exploration is out, we're straight to the industrial age, anywhere with coal and iron is the heart of a boom. Roads were neglected between the Romans and wide ownership of the motorcar, but in this world they wouldn't be. Improving the roads would be a driving factor in maintaining any empire and it's possible that you might trigger industrialisation sooner just in achieving this aim. There would also be improved tunneling, bridging and possibly even earlier flight, just to overcome the barrier of not having waterways.

The modern age. When was the last time you used a ferry because there wasn't another option?

Case 2:

Build two primary hubs for your civilisation on a single continent, one is pure industrial and you dropped it on a major source of raw materials. The other is farming and provides food to the first. Tech, cultural, intellectual can find their suitable spaces once the others are established. Fly.


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