Context: future humans settle a distant planet and genetically modify themselves to never be able to 'settle' (use agriculture, create cities, etc). (Just go with me on how!). As a result, they are effectively pre-historic nomads, traveling around the world in tribes/clans (think Clan of the Cave Bear), hunting & gathering.

However, the first generation still has all the knowledge of their generation: medicine, atomic theory, space travel, and on and on. The question is:

What knowledge would persist, and how would it change, after 1000 years? What modern ideas and technologies could still be around and useful to these 'neo-primitive' people?

People might know how to prevent infections, but no longer understand why it works, i.e. washing wounds and using boiled water & fire-heated tools to kill bacteria becomes a religious ritual.

Similarly, would knowledge of the atom—physicist Richard Feynman famously said that the one sentence that would convey the most important scientific knowledge we possess is "Everything is made of atoms." How might this basic idea persist (or not!) and evolve over a millenium, with people passing down knowledge but not having the technology to demonstrate it?

  • $\begingroup$ just because you cant settle down doesn't mean you cant teach. there's not really any reason why medicine would become any sort of strange ritual because people would just continue to teach about cells and how medicine works. $\endgroup$
    – zackit
    Mar 25 at 13:52
  • $\begingroup$ @zackit a lot medicine will disappear becasue they can't make the things needed to use it. And retained as a ritual means it will quickly lose all functional benefit. you'll have people waving moss over wounds so antibiotic spirits will purify the wound. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Mar 25 at 15:02
  • $\begingroup$ @John i didnt say it would, the one who asked the question did. also, most medicines are produced from natural ingredients, such as antibiotics, probiotics, medicines for burns, etc. you dont have to always know how something works to know it does. thats why many tribal groups of humans have medicines that actually can help despite not knowing anything about how they help, why they help, or even if that thing is whats actually helping $\endgroup$
    – zackit
    Mar 25 at 15:17
  • $\begingroup$ @zackit except you specifically said "there's not really any reason why medicine would become any sort of strange ritual because people would just continue to teach about cells and how medicine works." so which is it, do they know how medicine works or don't they? $\endgroup$
    – John
    Mar 25 at 15:38
  • $\begingroup$ @John if their ancestors continue to teach them, they might, if they dont, they wont, but that doesnt matter for being capable of using medicine. they just need to know what medicines are and what to use for what and they can do it, theres no need to know how medicine works $\endgroup$
    – zackit
    Mar 25 at 15:56

I am afraid not much, because of the pollution accumulating over the generations which cannot be filtered out due to the lacking of verification.

To give you an example, back in the days we used a gas canister to feed our kitchen. When I started replacing it by myself, I was always told to be sure the it was properly connected to prevent gas leaks. Once a neighbor told me that, in order to verify that there were no leaks, I should wet some tissue with soapy water and apply it to the junction: if there was a leak the soapy water would have turned the tissue green.

See what happened there? A good piece of knowledge (soapy water makes bubbles when gas goes through it) was polluted with nonsense (gas turns soapy water green), turned into garbage and passed over.

Add to that the fact that superstition can quickly gain space (see what happens today with all the conspiracy theories), and you realize that the only knowledge that will stay useful is the one which is actually used: fire making and food cooking probably some astronomy, not much more for hunters-gatherers.

  • $\begingroup$ one thing to keep in mind though is that alot of technology can be made pretty easily, such as soap, glass, and pig iron, which can all be made using fairly common natural ingredients +fire $\endgroup$
    – zackit
    Mar 25 at 14:00
  • $\begingroup$ the biggest advantage is having glass, as it allows you to make lenses and therefore a way to see microscopic images, or at least much better detail. you can use this to verify many claims about things such as biology, medicine, disease, food and water safety, and more $\endgroup$
    – zackit
    Mar 25 at 14:07
  • $\begingroup$ @zackit: I am curious to learn how nomads can make cast iron. I would have thought that a blast furnace is a perfect example of a massive industrial construction which requires a large settled workforce. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 25 at 14:17
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP rechecking melting points, it appears i made a mistake and confused the melting points of iron and copper. in any case, copper melts at around 1080 C, and charcoal residue from large enough bonfires burns at approximately 1120 C, so at the very least they could have copper at their disposal, though shaping of the metal wood have to be done with temporary casts made of packed together dirt and clay $\endgroup$
    – zackit
    Mar 25 at 14:28
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP many nomads work iron, they build a smelter in a single location (usually near the iron of fuel) and come back to it year after year, most nomads are not traveling randomly but to the same places. See this paper on the Xiongnu jstage.jst.go.jp/article/isijinternational/54/5/54_1017/_html/… $\endgroup$
    – John
    Mar 25 at 14:46

You can come up with a lot of ideas if you think about why people stay put in the first place. In a very real sense this has to do with Labor Specialization and supply chains.

Where things get made is determined a lot by local resources. If the local resource is good soil and water, then Farms sprout up. Farms have to be tended to though and that means people stay put. Coal is another example. the coal doesn't move around so if you want it, you have to dig it out and that means you stay put. If you want to produce more than can be used by your clan then you have to trade for other things as your time is spent digging up the coal. You trade with the farmers for their surplus food and now they can use your surplus coal to stay warm in the winter. All of the sudden you have a rudimentary economy (basic barter for two resources that don't move), a supply chain (moving the surplus back and forth) and specialization (coal mining and Farming). Thists a massive over simplification but it outlines why humanity moved away from Nomadic lifestyles in the first place.

By forcing people back to a nomadic lifestyle, you will in essence take away specialization on any large scale. The only things your people will be able to keep is what they can carry and maintain while moving around. Sure, some specialization will take place within the tribe, but it won't be anywhere near the levels needed for any kind of sophistication. Even if generation 2 has all the benefits of modern tech, they will lose an awful lot of that as survival takes precedent. The benefits of technology only make it while the machines work. Batteries lose their ability to hold a charge over time. Seals in internal combustion engines degrade. Wire insulation breaks down leading to short circuits. You can't really maintain anything but the most simple things without the ability to get parts, and that requires a supply chain, which means people somewhere have to stay put. In a few short years, people will be much more focused on simply staying warm in the winter and having enough food. They won't have the time or the inclination to try to keep the digital library intact. Added to that, having information in hard copy is too heavy to carry. A few books is heavier than a lot of different kinds of weapons and when you are hungry, that book on electricity is useless. Knowledge is powerful, sure, but it is secondary to survival.

Not all books are useless. One on edible plants and medicinal plants would be treasured, but accidents and entropy would slowly remove a lot of the copies.

By around Generation 6 most knowledge that is not directly tied to survival in some form or another will be lost. Working items from the time of the first generation will be almost entirely gone. The few that remain won't be understood. Anything that cannot be done on the road, or in the span of about a season will be pretty much gone.

Your end result is that you will probably drop back to early iron age technology. Blacksmithing is a useful skill. The tools needed are portable or can be made on site. Iron ores, oxides, and so on are all over, at least on earth. Early anvils were most often a big rock. The first hammers were also rocks. Early iron in some parts of the world came from peat bogs. Charcoal is available anywhere you can find wood. Most importantly, it is a skill where you learn more by doing than by reading. The clan's smith can teach children who are not quite old enough to join the hunting parties. Not all of them will take to it, of course, but almost all of them would probably learn enough to make things like arrow heads pretty early on. The small number who do take to it would carry on the tradition. The new smith would be valuable to the clan in a way that would allow them to specialize long term. The lore around metalsmithing would probably not change too much because the nature of iron does not change.

So your tech begins to lose relevancy around about Gen 3. By Gen 6 most techs and knowledge are gone or polluted. A few fields of study remain. Enforced Nomadic lifestyle means that any meaningful supply chain never gets built, so by 1000 years you have a race of iron age roaming tribes.

  • $\begingroup$ Outstanding answer, thank you. $\endgroup$
    – T3db0t
    Mar 25 at 15:57
  • $\begingroup$ You are welcome! $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    Mar 25 at 16:00
  • $\begingroup$ Note wagons will be a big help, one reason the Mongols did so well was they had wheeled wagons to move things. they could carry extra stuff for opportunistic use and trade. they could transport and make books for instance. but yeah iron age is probably it, maybe late iron age. you will have a bit of skitzo tech gunpowder for instance will ikely survive as things like hand grenades. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Mar 25 at 16:22
  • $\begingroup$ I am assuming wagons and beasts of burden, but they have limits. they will have to carry stuff for your household as well as a great many other things. You will run into limits of tire and wheel size, how much load can the animal pull, how many animals to a team, and then all important terrain limitations. $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    Mar 25 at 16:26
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @John I have my doubts about gunpowder, although I suppose it's possible if a deposit of guano and flowers of sulfur near the migration routes. You need sulfur, saltpetre, and charcoal for basic black powder. For adequate quantities of sulfur you need a source that is probably going to be fixed. Saltpetre can come from a number of sources, even human urine, but to get a decent amount, guano is the best way to go. $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    Mar 25 at 20:22

Nothing is certain but these are some technologies that would still be practical to keep pass down in a nomadic environment.

Basic medicine and medical/biological knowledge.

Basic chemistry


Atomic theory I can't see as something that will be passed down. It just wouldn't be very practical to your nomads. They're not going to be making bombs or power plants as both would require them to settle down.

Put it simply that everything is made of atoms is not the most Important human discovery in pre settled society.

  • $\begingroup$ The atomic theory is rather important for basic chemistry. In fact, basic chemistry is what made the atomic theory mainstream. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 25 at 14:18
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP to understand basic chemistry not necessarily to use it. $\endgroup$ Mar 25 at 14:20
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Is there a difference? If they don't understand chemistry then they cannot use chemistry. Nature very rarely provides chemical substances in pure form. If they don't know what they are doing then they are forced to rely on rote processes; and those processes stop working as soon as some small attribute of the ingredients changes from source to source. For example, the Romans knew that in order to make concrete they needed dirt from the quarries around the city of Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli) and no other dirt worked; so they shipped thousands upon thousands of tons of dirt overseas... $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 25 at 14:27
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP Exactly both gunpowder and cement were invented for discovery of the atom. Clearly the Atom is not necessary for someone perform basic chemistry. $\endgroup$ Mar 25 at 16:30

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