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Suppose a hypothetical apocalypse scenario that wipes out all human beings, but leaves infrastructure and the like behind. In particular, digital technologies are mostly unaffected. Consider then, that an amount of time passes, allowing nature to reclaim the earth, and a fair bit of natural interdiction of our civilization to take place.

Now, say another intelligent species arose, also bipedal, perhaps even descended from apes like us, but benefitting from a 'buff' in cognitive capability. They are by all relevant metrics, smarter and more capable than us.

All other things being equal, how big an aid is the fact our ruined - but still somewhat intact civilization is now their stomping ground? How much of a guidebook towards building civilization could be put together from studying the ruins of our own? Would they progress faster than us? Slower? In different or similar directions? How soon until milestones such as the wheel, forging iron tools, the steam engine, the combustion engine, powered flight, splitting the atom, space travel?

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    $\begingroup$ Whilst interesting, this question seems a little underconstrained... I'm not sure it passes the "would a good answer involve writing an entire book?" test. Consider concentrating on a specific bit of technology (say, steam power) and detailing the setting a bit (like, how long ago were humans wiped out? last wednesday? 100 years ago? 35000 years ago? 140 million years ago?). What do you want from "digital technologies are unaffected"? Were you aware that electrolytic capacitors have a potentially quite limited lifetime, for example? $\endgroup$ Apr 23 at 9:58
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    $\begingroup$ It would take magic to prevent digital technologies from deteriorating. Just sitting on a shelf, digital technology deteriorates. Atoms in the transistors migrate which destroy the semiconductors. Resistors fade. Even today, the advanced digital technology is incomprehensible to many people and can be compared to magic. I doubt any being who does not have high technology already would be able to reverse engineer and understand our digital technology. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Apr 24 at 14:23

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How soon until milestones such as the wheel, forging iron tools, the steam engine, the combustion engine, powered flight, splitting the atom, space travel?

They will be unable to reach most of these milestones. In particular, the earliest steam engines cannot be made without plentiful and readily accessible deposits of high grade coal, of which they consumed truly prodigious amounts: so much so that for several decades, it only made economic sense to build a steam engine right on top of a coal mine. (The economic case was that the steam engines pumped out water from the mines, allowing access to coal deposits below the local water table.) But it just so happens that we have already extracted the best coal deposits; while there remains a lot of coal in the ground, it is either difficult to access, or lower grade, or both. The coal deposits are not renewable on timescales which would also allow any meaningful traces of civilisation to be preserved.

If your goal is to industrialise, coal cannot be substituted with wood. You can make iron tools using wood for fuel, but for mass producing steel machinery, even all the forests of Earth will not suffice. Without plentiful machine-worked steel, you would not be able to have internal combustion engine; and because there would be no steam engines and also not enough coal and steel for a railway network, the economy will just not develop to require as much powered overland travel anyway. Lack of internal combustion engine means no powered flight, which in turn means no splitting the atom: remember, it was developed as a weapon, to be delivered to target by internal combustion engine-powered flying machines (i.e. warplanes), and without an electrical grid, there would be no economical case for civilian uses of nuclear energy either. (And there will be no economical case for electricity grid due to lack of mass-produced electrical devices, due to lack of machine-based manufacture, due to lack of coal, due to lack of steam engines to access the remaining deep/low-grade deposits, due to lack of shallow high-grade deposits which we have already extracted and which are not coming back anytime soon.)

But!

...if your apocalypse occurs in say the 18th century, none of the above constraints apply. I would not expect the new species to advance much faster or to achieve things which humans will not. Its progress will still be subject to economic and physical limitations; you cannot argue with the law of supply and demand and win any more that you can with the law of gravity. But everything that exists in our world, they will be able to achieve too.

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    $\begingroup$ When you look at the rate of deforestation during the early Industrial Revolution, it's clear that there was more than enough wood to be sustainable, but that our ancestors made no attempt to replant the forests that they were cutting down. A smarter (less greedy) species than our own could have maintained thier forests without ever switching to coal. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Apr 23 at 13:38
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    $\begingroup$ Replanting a forest is way less labor intensive than cutting it down and turning it into charcoal. The problem was not that they could not, it's that they did not. But if they did, then the price of wood would have remained cheap. Because it is underground, it's actually more labor intensive to dig up coal and process it into coke than it is to cut down trees for charcoal... but only if you have enough land set aside for trees to do it sustainably. The problem is that humans don't like waiting 10+ years for thier investments to mature when that same land could yield 10 food harvests $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Apr 23 at 15:16
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    $\begingroup$ You are correct in that by the late part of the industrial revolution, coke was way cheaper than charcoal, but you are missing a lot of context. First off turning coal into coke required burning it in kiln just like charcoal, but it takes a lot longer 15-35hr as opposed to 7-8hr. Your week thing is simply incorrect. It took rows of dozens or even hundreds of these kilns running at the same time to process all the needed coke just like you saw happen with charcoal kilns during the early IR. Also, at the beginning of the IR, wood was simply way cheaper. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Apr 23 at 19:13
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    $\begingroup$ Coal had already been a known fuel source for 1000s of years, but it was more expensive in most parts of Europe because it has to be mined which is more labor intensive than felling; so, it was rarely used. So, even though coal and coke were known about, they were just not worth the cost until after Europe became deforested. Deforestation meant that Europe had to start importing wood from its colonies which drove the price of wood way up which is when/how coal became cheaper. The final detail is the beehive kiln. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Apr 23 at 19:13
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    $\begingroup$ After the switch to coke happened, more and more new technologies needing steel came out and the demand for higher volumes lead to a new style of industrial sized kiln that could process many tons of coal in a single firing. The same method can be used for charcoal, but never was because the demand for steel was not high enough to justify it until after the deforestation had already happened. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Apr 23 at 19:13
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Assuming this civilization has something similar in pattern recognition and language to humans they could likely learn plenty from any books that survive. Books are relatively delicate in that they are made of thin sheets of flammable biodegradable materials but we've discovered some very old books, papers, and similar materials that are still readable. This civilization would likely learn our languages much like we do, starting with illustrated books that have words that describe the items/nouns and actions/verbs being shown. As they learn words they can translate materials of increasing complexity over time.

The books would show what some real world items should look like and work like even if the items are damaged, decayed, rusted, and have parts missing. Damaged books would likewise have real world examples to build from to fill in blanks left from damaged pages or lost volumes of an album of books. Many photographs and motion picture films should survive to show realistic depictions of what things do and how they work.

The creatures that make up this civilization might have to be somewhat comparable in size and shape to humans, and have similar sensory perception, to make much of what we leave behind. If they view light/colors differently then ink on paper might be largely invisible to them, photographs might not match reality like we'd expect them to. If they have hands, or whatever, that are excessively smaller or larger than our own then it would be difficult to manipulate and explore the tools and utensils we leave behind.

I don't know how well digital records would survive if left without being maintained and protected. As it is now there's records lost because the machines built to store and replay them have been damaged and reverse engineering the systems has proven difficult without some frame of reference to work from.

Anything not "micro" or "nano" would likely be reverse engineered fairly quickly. We can teach a child to read and then from there a decade or two later they can practically teach themselves to take complex machines apart and put them back together, in the process learning how they work, then make repairs, adjustments, improvements, or some such shortly after. If the pieces are too small to see with the unaided eye, and manipulate with basic hand tools, then that's a specialty that could take far longer to master without guidance from someone already skilled in that field.

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