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In my scenario, all of current humanity on Earth and space is teleported to a whole new planet in a different universe with new laws of physics that mostly govern a magic system based on energy manipulation and different biology. Humanity is transported without anything from Earth, just with their own minds and clothes, and from then onwards, there are continuous wars and famines, resource wars and even more wars for over 100 years as new countries form and fall and fight over territory.

How long would it take for humanity to devolve into medieval level society and technology if the printing press is never reinvented and books about the old world are constantly burnt and destroyed from constant wars and the only method of knowledge of the old world being passed down is orally from one generation to another?

Edit: Due to stuff like no shelter, hard to find food and poisonous water, and of course, magic monsters that show up at night and are stronger than full grown African elephants, 7.5 billion people will die, only 500 million will remain after the first year. These 500 million would either be smart enough to trick the monsters, be able to group together and be able to make a base quick enough or would have enough mana to fight the monsters.

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    $\begingroup$ Note that they won't travel with any technology to begin with (and even if things like smartphones travelled along their clothes, they will last only as much as their last charge). They don't have any technology. They will be unable to produce any "modern" technology. Even if some individuals know how to create a certain piece of technology, producing that will depend on further components which are not going to be available. $\endgroup$
    – Ángel
    Sep 8, 2023 at 1:12
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    $\begingroup$ I’ve already erased all history in 3 generations. Look at this question $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Sep 8, 2023 at 3:04
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    $\begingroup$ These are a lot of different questions comined into one. I'd advice you to split up the question in multiple smaller ones to get more focused answers. For example one question "how long till a medieval society de/evolves from this situation". And another one about "how long till origin is forgotten". Also maybe describe a bit more how the immediate aftermath of the teleportation unfolds in your story as that would be tremendously important. $\endgroup$
    – datacube
    Sep 8, 2023 at 7:09
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    $\begingroup$ We know ancient (B.C.E.) Egyptians had actual archaeologists studying their own pyramids, if that helps. $\endgroup$ Sep 8, 2023 at 14:34
  • $\begingroup$ A single term of an elected government is pretty much enough. $\endgroup$
    – fraxinus
    Sep 8, 2023 at 20:55

12 Answers 12

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How long would it take for a civilization to forget how it began?

  • Definitely less than 5,000 years.

    We know for sure that 5,000 years is enough -- the mainline western civilization began some 5,000 years ago and we definitely do not know how it began.

  • There are good examples that 400 years may be enough.

    Even a few hundred years may be enough. For example, the ancient Greeks in the 5th century BCE, when people like Herodotus or Xenophon or Thucydides were trying to inquire about history, had no idea how the Greek civilization began, and that beginning was not more than 400 years before their time.

P.S. About that devolution into medieval level society... Not going to happen. The western European medieval society, which is what is usually meant on this site when speaking of medieval anything without qualifications, was a unique and unrepeatable historical phenomenon, conditioned by a complex web of preconditions which is extremely unlikely to ever happen again elsewhere.

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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps not within the scope of the question or answer, but where can I learn more about the western European medieval society being unique and unrepeatable? $\endgroup$
    – hjk321
    Sep 7, 2023 at 18:29
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    $\begingroup$ @hjk321: Basically, in the short space of a comment. When people on this site say medieval they usually mean western European High Middle Ages. The High Middle Ages world was born out of the dissolution of the Early Middle Ages Carolingian Empire. The Early Middle Ages world (which was very different) was born out of complex historical situation, involving the sudden and total collapse of a highly advanced civilization, plus the rise of a fundamentally alien religion, plus a devastating plague which killed one half to two thirds of the people. How common can such circumstances be? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Sep 8, 2023 at 1:59
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    $\begingroup$ @hjk321: One way to understand why I said it was unique and unrepeatable is to take any decent, but more than a simple introduction, history book, for example Rosamond McKitterick's The Early Middle Ages, and try to see how many things had to go just the way they did in order to get to what we think of as the medieval society. Or, conversely, at how many points history could have just as easily gone in some other direction. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Sep 8, 2023 at 2:10
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP - indeed, and how those points of history went in very different directions in all the other parts of the world. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    Sep 8, 2023 at 16:05
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    $\begingroup$ Well, China's current government practically actively rewrites history so it may be possible that modern mainland Chinese have no clue about their own history. Those that left and preserved it, like Taiwan, may know more about China than people in China. $\endgroup$
    – Nelson
    Sep 10, 2023 at 13:39
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Myth or History?

And, coupled with that question, what level of precision do you desire? As soon as they happen, events will be formed into a narrative which is used by the current generation to affirm their cultural identity. There may be a few experts who study the details and question the simplistic narrative. They may or may not be able to teach other experts, but most people will swallow the narrative hook, line, and sinker.

  • "Lincoln fought the civil war to free the slaves." Or was it about preserving the Union?
  • "Columbus discovered America." Except for all those people who were already there ...
  • "Barbarians overran the Roman Empire and caused the Dark Ages." So dark, actually, that they improved the plow and horse harness, invented the compass, and many more.

And the teachings of a certain Jewish preacher who was crucified by the Romans got preserved in remarkable detail, even if the historical detail got mangled by subsequent authors.

Now imagine a bunch of people who all tell their post-transportation children stories about the Old Earth they came from, where food was there for the taking in the supermarket (never mind the plastic cards that were involved), hot and cold running water came out of walls, and people could take holiday trips in airliners to beautiful beaches. Sounds like a paradise, no? But many of the people who tell this story are literate. If they redevelop paper and ink before they die, there will be detailed accounts. And those accounts will probably spell out things like germ theory, basic chemistry, or the speed of light which may or may not hold true in your magical world. If there are germs, and so on, and the lessons from Old Earth work, then your 'creation myth' gets much more believable. Which makes it more likely to be preserved and transmitted.

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Basically, as soon as most of the people with lived experience of Earth's civilisation die. A few decades, perhaps. The main problem is that oral tradition is not very good for passing knowledge. It is good for passing instructions and stories, but these tend to be practical and knowledge of Earth's civilisation will not be of much use in a universe with different physics and biology.

And of course constant wars would create no shortage of things more important than a knowledge of faraway world to which you will never return.

But if it's any consolation, some things about Earth's civilisation may be remembered for millenia in the form of myths, similar to how the myth of the Flood can plausibly be a dim recollection of the sea level rise which followed the end of last ice age. But that wouldn't be anywhere near enough knowledge to rebuild civilisation to its present-day level; sorry.

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    $\begingroup$ In the scenario the OP describes where many billions of people are teleported to an unfamiliar, untamed planet with no resources whatsoever, I expect most of them will be dead within a week, not several decades, but that will of course be too soon to forget their homeworld. I think what you're getting at is not "when most earthlings die", but "when earthlings are in the minority" - no matter what fraction of people die in the initial event, people won't forget earth until a new generation replaces them. $\endgroup$ Sep 8, 2023 at 12:37
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    $\begingroup$ @NuclearHoagie, thank you. Yes, what matters is not the absolute number of surviving earthlings but what proportion of total population they make up. So like there may still be millions of 2nd World War survivors, but they are a very small proportion of the world's population and so the memory of being in that war is for all practical pruposes lost. $\endgroup$
    – ihaveideas
    Sep 8, 2023 at 13:43
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    $\begingroup$ On the other hand one surviving expert in a field can probably reconstruct most of the most important facts of the field on their own. And will be highly motivated to do so before the knowledge fades in their and the collective human memory. So if conditions allow for at least some civilization I suspect not that much scientific/historic knowledge will be lost. New written sources will immediately arise. There is no need for an oral tradition. (Even if say magically the knowledge of the printing press also disappears there are many other ways to produce writing.) $\endgroup$
    – Kvothe
    Sep 8, 2023 at 13:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Kvothe That is true only if that surviving expert has other people supporting that person. If that person is 100% focused on survival and getting enough food to eat, they won't have any interest in preserving unneeded knowledge. Up until recently, scientific advances needed the funding and protection of a wealthy patron. Today, some governments replace the patron. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Sep 8, 2023 at 13:52
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It depends on definition of "forget". Likely, never.

Let's see. 8 billion people teleported to a new planet. No technology, no agriculture, no tools. 80% would die in the first month from hunger and lack of shelter. By the end of the first year there would be a few millions survivors.

These people would be tough. "Fit" and lucky part of the humanity. Survivors. Lots of cannibals. They would be distributed all over the planet.

Fight over the territory - why? They would have an entire planet and there would be so few of them. There is no real reason for them to fight. Note - war always was expensive, it is only with industrialization humanity become able to support multi million armies. In the medieval period 10k was about what people could manage. Romans were better, but they were better at everything. Mostly in logistics though. They built a lot of roads in order to support the armies.

So, you have tough remnants of humanity distributed all over the new planet. They don't have much in the way of entertainment. They would tell stories. They would write stories. Hundreds of thousands of records, written for decades, all over the world. No printing press - even better, more unique records.

The oldest written document still surviving is ~5200 years old, and that was from a tiny civilization which just invented the idea of writing. Millions of people from all over the world distributed all over the new world - the records would be like cockroaches. Indestructible.

The technology itself would be lost - no technical artifacts, potentially not working technologies due to different physics, too many dead to restore and maintain technological level. But general approach to science would survive. Scientific method. Observation, explanation, testing. They would figure out the new physics, chemistry and magic pretty fast.

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    $\begingroup$ Erm, yes, war has always been expensive. But in our earlier accounts of war, Assyrian Era and the like, the losers bore a lot of the costs. "We'll make these nice weapons, then you'll give us a share of your crops--or you'll be killed, and we'll take it all." $\endgroup$
    – Jedediah
    Sep 8, 2023 at 3:24
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If I look at myself, I have heard stories of WWII through my grandfather and other relatives who fought it, and the earlier thing I was told was the appearance of the first airplane flying above their village about 100 years ago.

With no history books nor historians, what I could know from the past would be limited to that. Anything before that fades into stories and legends, mixed in the memories of those who heard them.

With constant wars having 3 generations coexisting would be even more challenging, resulting in an even more short direct memory.

I would say 3 generations is a good limit.

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    $\begingroup$ In fairness, the mere existence of cheap and accessible history books and professional historians relieves a lot of the pressure to preserve and oral history tradition; I can easily skip remembering the details of history if I know the general outline well enough to find the details when I need them in reference materials, but amateur historians from prior eras with extremely limited access to written material would not be so cavalier. I'm not saying you're off by an order of magnitude or anything, but you might be lowballing a bit. $\endgroup$ Sep 8, 2023 at 2:58
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Framing Question: how important is it, really, for this society to have come from modern civilization?

The reason I ask this is because I find the entire premise of how your world got to where it was very hard to believe for a number of reasons:

  • People don't just have wars. Famines cause plenty of conflict and chaos, but aside from general civil unrest of people fighting over food, it doesn't necessarily coalesce into an organized war of nations.
  • I wouldn't assume that countries have any momentum going into a world without telecommunications, especially with the initial population bottleneck that is survival. This society is going to spring from tribes that formed from the survivors of all the initial fighting over food.
  • People don't just burn books. There is always a political motivation behind destroying or obscuring knowledge. This just isn't going to happen at a widespread and coordinated scale. It's more likely that you lose technological knowledge to the starving anarchy and population bottleneck when humanity was first poofed into another world- but it's unlikely that you'll lose everything because there will be plenty of smart and knowledgeable people who had the wits to survive.
  • Some survivor out there is going to know the principles of computation and be able to apply it to whatever magic exists in the world, so it won't be long before you have a working computer (albeit a very basic one). There are going to be enough people who remember computers to be willing to give the computer scientist the resources he/she needs in order to make a useful machine.
    • Logic gates and half-adders can be made using a wide variety of consistent, predictable systems from mechanical devices to water to dominoes to MineCraft Redstone. With enough logic gates and a pulse generator, you can do any computation imaginable.
  • Apply this to basically every field of applied science/mathematics. There are lots of engineers who will survive and carry what they know about their technology to start over.
  • The vast majority of people in modern society can read and write. People have lots of motivation to produce books and few have an ego big enough to want to stop it, let alone the charisma to get the power to do so at scale.

If you want a medieval magic society, just write that. This just feels like a very contrived way to create one because there won't even be echoes of modern technology in your world from the sound of it.

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  • $\begingroup$ I agree with most of what your wrote (hence the upvote), but don’t forget that more and more, engineers and computer scientists and the likes use computerized tools to carry their work for them. Even things as “simple” as accounting are now automatized. I remember 30 years ago asking a friend’s father, who was an accountant, to help me with homework from accounting class, and he barely remembered “T-accounts” with debit and credit, and said “Everything is computerized nowaways.” $\endgroup$ Sep 9, 2023 at 3:49
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    $\begingroup$ This is true, but you're still going to have a handful of survivors who actually understand the underlying theory- though they may be rusty at hand-calculations. You're not exactly going to have the new internet anytime soon, but it doesn't take much to make a half-adder- and a few hundred of those can make a useful (albeit basic) calculator. $\endgroup$
    – Beefster
    Sep 9, 2023 at 4:07
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If as the OP said, the whole population of earth. ~8 billionish? were instantly transported to an alien world with zero tech to help survive. (this is a question within itself! and wouldn't mind seeing a question on it) how many would survive the first day (immediately dying from lack of shelter)? 3 Days from the lack of hydration. 20 days (weakend to the point of exhaustion from lack of food). Past a month no bets. Interpersonal and intergroup conflicts I can't even begin to assign an attrition rate. Disease from unknown viral infections, Not to mention how many would perish from god knows what in the first 15 minutes after the ... BAMPH!

All this considered, with current world population, an even more technologically entrenched population from the future would only make it worse, a 20% survival rate IMHO is generous. Around ~1,600,000,000 That's about the same as earth around 1850ish and perhaps 14 pop/km^2.

Point being, losing 7.5 billion people in so many days is gonna leave a mark. Visceral survival instincts will kick in and no one will give a damn about anything other than their next meal and who is going to stab them in the back or who they can stab in the back to live another day. If anything meaningful at all is remembered past one generation (significantly shortened lifespan generation!), outside of an isolated extraordinary individual, it would be surprising.

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    $\begingroup$ People won't give a damn about anything other than survival for a good while, but as tribes form and stabilize, some room opens up to give the tribe engineers the resources they need to research and explore rudimentary tech replacements. You're not going to have the internet or anything even remotely like it for a long time, but to suggest that tech will completely vanish is a long shot. $\endgroup$
    – Beefster
    Sep 8, 2023 at 22:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Beefster To a degree, not saying we will revert completely to the stone age. But with the description provided, for a time, at least a year the population will effectively be trapped in the stone age. maybe more until we have better than stone and wood. Mind you, the OP did not say the place was anything like earth. Presumably habitable but flora fauna geology is only similar to what humans evolved in. We have to relearn half the pyramid base all tech is built on. not to mention magic is in the mix. not enough info to say if this is good or bad, just another variable they must to adjust to. $\endgroup$
    – Gillgamesh
    Sep 11, 2023 at 12:54
  • $\begingroup$ Unless the world's magic system is too chaotic and random, people will figure out how to make logic gates and computers out of magic phenomena, for instance. It's downright impressive the kinds of things people are able to prove are Turing complete. I can't speak in detail for much of other engineering disciplines, but the main setback here is the lack of reading material to reference from earth and the lack of base technologies to build on (so naturally, computers will be downright massive at first, just like they were on earth). $\endgroup$
    – Beefster
    Sep 11, 2023 at 15:32
  • $\begingroup$ Things like gears and springs will probably still work as long as there is a material out there with the right properties. So simple mechanical devices are going to be back on the menu. The physics of this world would need to be so wildly different and nearly unpredictable in order for there to be no useful knowledge from earth. So basic tech is going to survive in the minds of smart survivors. $\endgroup$
    – Beefster
    Sep 11, 2023 at 15:35
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    $\begingroup$ You're essentially only going to lose whatever tech cannot be replicated within the lifetime of the first generation. $\endgroup$
    – Beefster
    Sep 11, 2023 at 15:43
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This is a bit like asking “how long does it take to forget your own birth?”. Usually, by the time a city / nation / social pattern has developed to the point that we notice it, it’s already been around longer than anyone can remember. Places that were colonized recently may be an exception, but even in America, most people have no real idea how their town got started. They certainly don’t remember the connections to the old world their town’s founders left behind.

There’s a trope in SF of searching for the legendary lost planet of Earth as if this was a huge mystery, but why would anyone in the future care? It’s only interesting to the reader, because we live on Earth; but in these futures, we are long-dead boring primitives. It’s not like people today are roaming all over Africa hunting for the original human village (which could still be an actual inhabited place!).

We do retain some history, of course, but it’s highly selective, and we usually just hold onto stories that are still relevant somehow. E.g. we know quite a bit about the Roman Empire because a lot of European civilization is still based on it in various ways. But we know very, very little about what most Europeans’ actual ancestors were up to 2000 years ago.

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It Depends

Even with lots of wars and famines going on, that doesn't mean that everyone is too preoccupied with them to bother to keep track of history.

So the printing press is never invented, but perhaps a pen and paper will be. (These items would prove very useful in time of both war and famine! Even war fought with "sticks and stones" as yours would apparently be)

So the question becomes dependent on how interested they are and how many people there are that are interested in maintaining the history, at which point, it kind of becomes your choice (as the writer).

So it could be anything from

everything gets written down by dedicated scribes and chroniclers, and future historians do their best to sort fact from fiction and propaganda. Even with books being burned by war it's not hard to see some accounts surviving.

... to ...

Nobody is really interested in it and so the knowledge just gets passed orally as you say, and after 3 generations it mutates á la "Chinese Whispers", and becomes legend or myth, and after several more generations might become lost altogether.

It's all dependant on how interested people are in a) maintaining history and b) researching it later.

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  • $\begingroup$ Don't forget marks and painting on rocks. These have been done for centuries and the stories about what those marks and paintings have been passed down orally. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Sep 8, 2023 at 13:57
  • $\begingroup$ Paper and ink are very simple technologies that would be extremely easy to reproduce. Sources of food and water and shelter would come first and a good many educated people would survive. Remembrance of history and science would be selective, but things relevant to survival would be well-preserved. $\endgroup$
    – Suncat2000
    Sep 8, 2023 at 18:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Suncat2000 You obviously have not made paper by going out and collecting the raw material. It took me all day to collect the willow bark and pound it into fibers that could be made into one sheet of paper. The results were not easy to use. If there aren't good fiber producing plants in the area, making paper by hand is very difficult. Our industrial process of making paper hides just how difficult it was in the early days to make paper. Animal hide might be used instead (vellum). $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Sep 9, 2023 at 14:45
  • $\begingroup$ Instead of paper and ink, a more available writing material is clay. Make a ball of clay, make marks on it, toss it in the fire, and you have a permanent record. Cuneiform tablets have lasted for thousands of years. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Sep 9, 2023 at 21:36
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidR You obviously haven't ventured into the field much. I didn't intend to imply that making paper or ink didn't require labor and time, or even one person working alone. However, they don't require more technology than primitive tools. Reeds or quills, pigmented clay or berries or blood, a couple hammer-like tools, some kind of knife, and a screen and vat of water are the basic necessities. You don't need a trip to Hobby Lobby. $\endgroup$
    – Suncat2000
    Sep 29, 2023 at 19:21
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It depends. Sometimes history can be forgotten in few generations, especially if the uncomfortable truths that should be forgotten are not important to people, but sometimes it can take a very long time.

Creation myths for example. There are dozens, and they have survived millennia, passed down from generation to another by telling and listening and retelling. Sometimes they have been part of cultural heritage of people whose culture was being eliminated, and the myths did not go away, they became contraband.

Christians are a very relevant example to Westerners, twofold: first they were oppressed in ancient Rome and Egypt and such, then Christians themselves tried to uproot every other culture, but many of the other cultures and Christians themselves retained their own understanding, some in less obvious ways, or even hiding it completely underground. After all, inquisition did not get rid of heretics even though it tried really hard.

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A lot depends on how able they are to recover some basic technology. If they can get paper making and moveable type in a couple of decades (before too many people die) then they can record and distribute a lot of useful information about how to do useful things like iron smelting, mine drainage, low pressure steam engines etc, plus maybe some warnings about the existential threats of nuclear weapons and global warming. See The Day the Universe Changed episode 4 for some more background on this.

A big immediate challenge is going to be farming: they don't have any earth-type plants or livestock. Even if there are feral bovines and horses, that is a very long way from the domesticated variants we are familiar with. 5,000 years of selective breeding makes a huge difference.

BTW, plonking 8 billion people on such a world is going to produce instant ecological collapse. In the short term everyone is going to be hunting food and chopping down wood for warmth and shelter, because otherwise they die. So next year there are zero prey animals and forests. You might want to rethink the numbers on this.

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    $\begingroup$ Also depends on how greatly the planet is populated with resources. Humans are very adaptable and keen on survival. They would start by foraging for (edible) food but within one or two growth cycles (years?) would have working farms. Assuming our current levels of education. $\endgroup$
    – Suncat2000
    Sep 8, 2023 at 18:07
  • $\begingroup$ There are ~ 0.2 acres of arable land per person in the UK. In the USA its ~1.25 acres, and that assumes mechanised irrigation. We feed the world population using tractors, highly bred wheat (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Borlaug, the man who saved a billion lives) and lots of artificial fertilizer, weedkiller and pesticides. This transplanted population doesn't even have draught animals to pull stick ploughs. Two years would get you some prototype farms with the first generation of draught animals, and maybe some simple metal ploughs, not feeding 8 billion. $\endgroup$ Sep 9, 2023 at 10:46
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    $\begingroup$ And clay tablets can be used instead of paper making and movable type. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Sep 10, 2023 at 14:26
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry for not writing this detail in the question, but magic monsters exist and killed 2 billion people in the first night alone and in a year less than a billion people remain. $\endgroup$ Sep 26, 2023 at 7:13
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They will never forget.

The story of "we lived in x nice world and were magically transferred to this shitty world" is short enough and captivating enough that elders will be passing down to children for as long as people are alive.

Now, if you want lots of details to accompany those origin stories, those can linger for hundreds to thousands of years but don't expect them to be accurate and don't expect any good predictions, although others have made some good guesses.

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  • $\begingroup$ I don't really think so.... Ever heard of the telephone game? Im thinking that in like 30 ish generations knowledge of Earth would be like 'oo we lived in heaven where food was plenty and there were horseless wagons and flying metal birds would carry us across the world in hours or smth then for some reason we got kicked out and we have to live here' $\endgroup$ Sep 26, 2023 at 7:10
  • $\begingroup$ @GrimmReaper18B 30 generations is around 1000 years. We have oral history going back around 35000 years (earthdate.org/episodes/the-oldest-story-ever-told) and those people never really had the mentality of "preserving knowledge" in a scientific way. Teleported people will never forget their "Atlantis" and many will actively try to get back there, regardless of how brutal the war might be. Regarding details, I mentioned that those can be a hit or miss for various reasons but they are largely irrelevant if all you need is knowledge of Earth existing. $\endgroup$ Sep 27, 2023 at 4:55

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