Let's say history went on as it would have with one major exception - a virus/series of viruses decimated the European/Asian populations repeatedly to such a degree that they simply could not advance as a society technologically. Now, the Americas are untouced by this, whether it be by immunity or by simple lack of exposure and have progressed to modern tech levels.

Is it possible to reasonably predict how long it would have taken them, from say, 1300, to do this? I like to think the Inca were on bar with early Greece technologically speaking if it helps, though I may be wrong. Answers should take any natural effects into account (e.g. climate, weather, availability of game.

  • $\begingroup$ Why would Incas reach for the tech? The climate is warm, war acts are religion-based (no need to capture the land, but slaves) and the population is low. Population change... I would bet that first engineers appear when cities are unable to be fed/watered properly (e.g. food carts take days) or when taking the slaves for bloody rituals results in defeat. $\endgroup$
    – kagali-san
    Commented Jun 20, 2015 at 22:00
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    $\begingroup$ @kagali-san - "I would bet that first engineers appear when cities are unable to be fed/watered properly" That is the current thinking as to how the Mayans went under. So you can't really make the bet. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 20, 2015 at 22:27
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    $\begingroup$ @kagali-san The fact that the Incas had favorable climate conditions has nothing to do with their drive to innovate and engineer technology. They made super long super straight highways, made one type of the most resistant and resilient architecture (we don't even know how to do it now), they had advanced brain surgery, heck they devised buttons to change the flow of water like a water tap! I strongly doubt even the Greeks had that. And let us not mention the Maya or Aztecs, they had their technological achievements aswell. $\endgroup$
    – Jose Luis
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 13:34
  • $\begingroup$ I think what they (or any other group of people) need in order to advance, apart from a reason to do so, is not being shackled too badly by religion. If you are burned at the stake every time you say "hey, why don't we..." that will hinder advancement in no small way... $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Commented Jun 26, 2015 at 14:02

6 Answers 6


I would say, likely never, barring outside influence. Even when you look at Europe, it was a near run thing, more a matter of luck at times than anything, and Europe had lots of advantages.

In Guns, Germs and Steel, Jarred Diamond argue that the Americas would always be slow to develop but the primary orientation of the continents were North-South instead East-West as in Eurasian (Africa has the same problem.)

This causes trouble because biomes are largely defined by latitude, which defines their temperature. Closer to the equator, hotter, closer to polls colder. That means that as you move East-West, the temperatures stay more constant than they do moving North-South.

Plants and animals can migrate or be traded East-West but far less easily North-South. Traveling East-West, you just need one suit of clothes. Traveling North-South you need several, one for each clime you will cross.

In civilization and technology building, the key factors are population size and trade. Populations tend to stick to biomes and grow East-West so if you have a primary North-South geography, you see a lot of smaller chopped up cultures and civilizations that are relatively isolated.

Population is necessary just for the surplus material a large number of people can produce and just for all the brain power it provides. Large population can also more easily back up information and survive cataclysms.

Trade is necessary to increasing technology because no place on earth has enough resources in a radius of 100-200 miles to support a Renaissance technology level. Also, trade is necessary to prevent civilization from collapsing from famines.

If your primary travel corridors run North-South, population gets chopped up into small cells, the spread of useful plants and animals is very slow and general travel and commerce, much more difficult.

The other problem with Americas is that they do not have native animals that can be domesticated, especially beast of burden. Diamond spent a lot of time pointing out that of the millions of mammal species only about a dozen have been domesticated. Domestication requires certain behavioral traits that not all animals possess. Attempts to domesticate Zebras for example, have been attempted by Islamic and then later Europeans (Zebras are immune to the tsetse that wipes out horses in Africa) but the animals are just too belligerent and easily startled.

In the Americas, the only animal that could even be considered for a beast of burden would be the buffalo, and even after a couple of centuries of people trying to raise them, they are still not domesticated just in terms of keeping them for meat and skins. Trying to yoke one is out of the question.

I think that culture in the Americas would cause a serious block. I would argue that the means of organization are a type of technology themselves, one that allowed them to accomplish more than any other cultures ever did with the same available resources. But they also created a serious early adopter trap that would have prevented further development.

The conditions that lead to the flourishing of technology, art and science are not natural and not stable. The progress of humanity is a story of this or that small polity suddenly and usually by chance, being forced to adopt a more egalitarian and merit driven society. Then they have a run of 200 years or so, and then fall back into a static, hierarchal, parton-client system where birth and political connections mean far more than merit and class mobility freezes. Then the locus of advancement jumps somewhere else. Human progress is more about following a golden thread from small pocket to small pocket all over the world for centuries.

Key to such development is escaping centralized authority and control with a subsequent increase in individual freedom and merit reward. Empires strangle off development fantastically. You can see this in the fall of the Islamic world after the Ottoman Empire absorbed most of it. A dynamic civilization slid into stagnation because Empires seek stability more than anything else and progress does not bring stability.

But the cultures of the Americas could not easily dispense with centralized authority. With only stone and wood tools to work with the high civilizations of the First Americas-peoples relied on an incredible level of social and task organization ito marshal vast amounts of skilled human labor to overcome their lack of metal tools and draft animals. They shaped stone by pounding it, not chiseling. They moved stone by huge teams of men, not by yoking oxen and so one.

While powerful, reliance on organization made the societies fragile. In Meso-America, almost any kind of social disruption caused city states to collapse economically and for their people to abandon the city, sometimes for decades or centuries.

The kind of wrenching social change in Europe that drove the the Renaissance would have simply destroyed the civilizations of Americans.

So, I think the answer would be "never" but if they did, it would take thousands of years.


This is a toughie.


Transportation. Transport in the Americas was over land, whereas in Europe, sea-transport was available. Imagine a hand splayed-out as if it were Europe, where you could go in-and-out with ships much faster than over mountains, forests and deserts. Land transport did not excel past sea until the railroad. Your early Roman empire adapted quickly to the sea for expansion, whereby your fictional American empire might not have interest in overseas travel. Horses were not available, either.

For your story, you may want to develop a way to travel overland very quickly, or provide an impetus for your sea-faring experts to go along the coasts by sea instead of walking along the land.

Diversity and Population. The benefit that Eurasia and north Africa had was connections with different cultures and a great diversity of skillsets in the by the time the 1300s arrived. Further, there was a much larger population. The population in Europe was more than 17 million in your time-frame, versus 2 million++ in the Americas. Either give your 'Americans' a strong, and healthy, growth or an innovative spirit to compete and diversify. You have the geography, but not the demographics. One suggestion is to start having the character areas rapidly develop in diverse, independent, but cooperative ways.


Geography. The Americas have pretty much almost every biome that Euro-Africa-Asia have in different doses. In order to get the same fauna, you can either adapt the existing ones (maybe they domesticate buffalo?*), or maybe they brought more animals with them previously in your alternate-reality. Therefore, your flora and fauna could be equally beneficial.

Solution from 1300AD? Highly, highly, highly speculative and optimistic:

Generation A - more interest in agriculture for distilling and saving food.

Generation B - developed interest in trade and communication.

Generation C - specialization of jobs.

Generation D - science & astronomy, mathematics, materials-science, engineering, and governance.

Generation E - evolution of a more mature and elaborate class system (I'm not saying this is a good thing), and you've got your renaissance.

Your question is difficult and very open, but I took a stab at it. More importantly, *- I laughed out loud at the buffalo-riders.

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    $\begingroup$ Not entirely true about transport being over land. If you look at the Iroquois & surrounding peoples, they had the whole of the Great Lakes and its tributary rivers for water transport - consider how these were used by the French voyageurs to run trade routes into the interior of the continent. Expand a little more, and you have the whole New England seacoast available. Then there's the Mississippi... $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jun 21, 2015 at 22:23
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf - agreed about the great lakes, and I think that's an important edge for the OP's story (+1); the only challenge is there weren't millions of people around the edges of the great lakes; most European people had water access to each other. Rather, the majority were spread over land. The mississippi can help, too. $\endgroup$
    – Mikey
    Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 18:28
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    $\begingroup$ Also it's not implausible that Incas could develop.... LLAMA RIDERS and LLAMA KNIGHTS!!! $\endgroup$
    – Jose Luis
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 13:39
  • $\begingroup$ Btw the Mayans were already advanced in astronomy and science. Maybe more advanced than Europeans at that time. If all civilizations of the americas met somehow and shared knowledge... the game is won. $\endgroup$
    – Jose Luis
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 13:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Mikey: How many people did live in those areas, before the virgin field epidemics killed off major parts of the population? And how many people does it take to have a civilization? I don't think there's firm evidence that it takes multiple millions, unless you judge culture by make-work projects like the pyramids. How large was the European culture that built Stonehenge &c? $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 18:31

Wow, I don't know how one could possibly say. Maybe forever. Why were they so far behind Europeans when the Europeans arrived? Their technology appears to have completely stagnated.

When Europeans reached the interior of Africa, the people there were still living pretty much as they had for thousands of years. It's not like they were a few years behind Europe and catching up. They'd gone nowhere for a long time.

If Europeans had never arrived, would the Aztecs and Incas have started moving forward at some point? Maybe. Maybe not.

What causes some cultures to have technological progress and others not? Historians debate that endlessly. Reasons suggested include various aspects of the culture, environment, religion, genetics, etc etc.

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    $\begingroup$ @joze Umm ... because when the Europeans arrived, the Aztecs and Incas were still living in the stone age? $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 14:00
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    $\begingroup$ @joze I didn't say they were morons. I said their technology was not progressing. Yes, they could build pyramids -- just like the ancient Egyptians could build pyramids, thousands of years before them. Europeans were building cathedrals and coliseums, hard to see how you could say American architecture was beyond Europe's. They were feeding fewer people per acre than Europe, so hard to see how you could say their agriculture was more advanced. They had aqueducts. So did the ancient Romans. Etc. Yes, they had sophisticated calendars. ... $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 14:11
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    $\begingroup$ ... But FOR THE MOST PART, they were thousands of years behind Europe technologically, and I am not aware of any evidence that they were catching up. Their technology appears to have been essentially unchanged for hundreds of years. This would seem to be a pretty inescapable fact of history. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 14:13
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    $\begingroup$ @joze What do you mean "they only had 100 years"? They had just as much time as the Europeans -- thousands of years. It's not like the Aztecs and incas magically appeared the day Cortez arrived. Historians debate how and when their ancestors came to America, but they were here for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived, and their ancestors were SOMEWHERE before that. Their history was exactly as long as the Europeans. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 14:24
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    $\begingroup$ @joze How could any group of people on Earth have a shorter history than any other? Whether we are all descended from Adam or we are all descended from some evolutionary forebear, all humans have a history going back exactly the same amount of time. Sure, people were living in America for less time than people were living in Europe, but the native Americans had ancestors with just as much history as the Europeans. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 18:00

What would it take? A lot, and then some. But good news: it is certainly possible!

The Inca, Maya, Aztec, and various tribes of north america had all various technologies that were advanced and if used in unison complementary. So I will make a list of things that in my opinion have to happen for it to be possible:

  1. The Mayan empire must survive until the Aztec empire and not be obliterated by it. Both should live beside each other like France and Britain did as a comparison.
  2. One of those civilizations has to discover bronze.
  3. They all become seafaring (most of them already are but not advanced enough to go very far)
  4. All of them expand a lot, in the case of the Aztecs they expand north and Mayans south.
  5. They end up encountering each other and sharing technology, the population grows a lot, and exchange happens between them (also war).
  6. The component technologies allow them to achieve some parity with the europeans. Admittedly they will lag behind in some areas, but will be forward in some other areas namely astronomy, engineering and maybe mathematics.
  7. This is optional, the Vikings settled north america and exchanged tech with the natives and maybe even the aztecs! This will give a considerable boost to the theory and greatly reduce the time required.

I estimate that this would take at least 700-1500 years more or less. Based on the fact that the Incan empire took 100 years to be founded. And being optimistic about the discovery of bronze. It is worth remembering that the Incas, Aztecs and Maya already had metallurgy so this may be an argument for their so called early development of bronze compared to the greeks for example.

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    $\begingroup$ Not just Vikings; Greeks, Romans etc could get blown over the Atlantic in a storm, if they had enough provisions with them. $\endgroup$
    – RedSonja
    Commented Aug 7, 2015 at 8:39

I suspect there would need to be some kind of society level shake up somewhere to get things moving more than anything.

I know a lot of real scientific research in medieval Europe was done in monasteries, and that's because monks had time, money and a desire to understand Gods creation. Monasteries also tended to be near water, which acted as highways of resources and ideas.

I would be included to go with some kind of stable empire who's ruler decided setting up monastery like places were a good idea from a piety point of view.

You've got a bit wiggle room for the time scale I think, culture is far more important.

I would also avoid nomadic and small tribes as sources anyway, you need the surplus resources of a nation/ empire of some kind to allow a caste of thinkers and tinkers to develop.


Every culture uses technology to serve its own purposes. The Incas valued rope for bridge building because it was durable and flexible. The French valued stone for bridge building because it was exactly the opposite: solid and reliable in keeping its shape. That's just one example but it points to a greater trend. You can't really easily compare levels of technology between such tremendously different and diverse societies as those of Europe and North America and South America. They have such different goals and available materials that technology won't advance in a linear and constant way in both regions. This scenario is cool not because of what Will be (the Indians achieving some arbitrary level of technology), but because of what could be (the Indians doing their own thing and advancing for a couple centuries more without going extinct from smallpox). Native Americans would find some pretty novel solutions to the same problems the Europeans solved and they would do it at their own pace like everybody else. I hope that didn't sound preachy or anything. :)

  • $\begingroup$ But you can judge levels of technology on a basis of common advances. We consider the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by American atomic bombs as the official begining of the atomic age. We consider several key events in our history as markers. This is generally what is meant when someone asks to compare technology levels. I suppose if you need a specific marker let it be the development of the printing press. I may have misrepresented this in the final few sentences of my question. $\endgroup$
    – Jax
    Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 19:36

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