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Let us assume that about 10,000 years ago there was another human civilization, that was quite similar to humanity. Physically they are humans. The state of development of this civilization is quite close to ours - they had learned electricity, ships, cars, airplanes. But they were much stronger than us in nanotechnology and waste recycling, and they did all they could to keep the planet clean and unpolluted. For example, all their machinery decomposed into dust after few years without contact with humans, they used solar panels and not fossil fuel for getting energy and they tend to live in natural environment - without big cities and so on.

But some natural disaster 10,000 years ago have wiped out this civilization from Earth (for example, a nuclear winter from an asteroid impact or a volcano), and the scattered remains of this civilization survived as prehistoric humans, which forgot nearly anything about their glory.

So, the question is: how can the modern humans find the traces of existence of this civilization? What is the most possible and realistic way to prove, that this civilization existed?

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    $\begingroup$ you should read: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/683/… $\endgroup$ – Vincent Nov 6 '14 at 19:18
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    $\begingroup$ Don't solar panels take 1000's of years to break down? $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Nov 6 '14 at 20:10
  • $\begingroup$ Did they use biotechnology, or something similar to it? $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Nov 6 '14 at 22:37
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    $\begingroup$ I'd assume that the civilization was not always at the nano-tech level...would it be possible that ruins exist that predate the nano-tech that they developed? As we have ruins today that show us at our previous technology levels, would they not as well? Little weird that the obvious signs of this race left behind could be them at their previous tech levels. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Nov 6 '14 at 23:44
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    $\begingroup$ What will be left after 10,000 years? Spam. Lovely spaaaam, wonderful spaaaaaam! $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Nov 7 '14 at 0:13
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One starting point would be to ask what objects have survived for 10000 years in reality?

One possible survival would be artwork and jewelry. In particular I am thinking of artwork that was carved into durable materials like stone or bone or glass. Even just painting inside a cave can last 10000 years or more. Since these objects are not themselves "technological" regardless of the tools used to do the carving they would not have disintegrated like the technological artifacts the way you supposed.

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    $\begingroup$ In particular, look for cut diamonds -- historically, the techniques for diamond cutting were developed in the 1300s. $\endgroup$ – Mark Nov 8 '14 at 23:54
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    $\begingroup$ Technology based on gold would probably leave significant traces as well - and we use massive amounts of gold in our technology; and we don't really tend to consider gold a pollutant, so maybe they didn't either. $\endgroup$ – Luaan Feb 22 '17 at 12:42
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Keep in mind that archaeology can learn as much by what is missing as by what is present.

In the UK we have a stone-age village from thousands of years ago that has been recreated by analyzing the holes in the ground that the huts and their support posts made. These houses were made completely from wood but the evidence lay preserved in the ground until archeologists found it.

It's unlikely that absolutely everything would be completely bio-degradable, and even if it was that process itself would leave evidence. As soon as you lay out things in organized ways those patterns become visible and are preserved in the ground for a surprising length of time.

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    $\begingroup$ Holes in the ground last extremely long times. You can fill them in with earth, but unless there are huge floods or the area gets covered by glaciers, it will not become as compacted as the ground around them (unless the whole area had been dug up at some point, for example to plant crops). Holes cut into stone can last almost forever, until the rock disappears beneath the planets crust because of tectonic activity. $\endgroup$ – Yora Apr 23 '15 at 9:16
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They would leave the same artifacts humans would have, up to the point where they decided to only use biodegradable everything.

I don't like this answer, but it fits.

This question begs the question, I suppose, of how they got to such a level of technology. If they were always eco-mentalists, why? When you're struggling to survive against nature, privation, tyranny, genocide, etc, are you REALLY going to give a fig about your carbon footprint?

So, understanding that some questions get asked without fully understanding the question behind the question, if your question is "how do I have an untraceable race of greenies," you have to explain not just how they advanced past the Stone Age without leaving lasting traces, but WHY.

Sub-questions: "How can modern humans find the traces of existence of this civilization? What is the most possible and realistic way to prove, that this civilization existed?"

The answer to these sub-questions is essentially the core answer above. Modern humans could find the traces of existence of this civilization in the same way modern humans find traces of the existence of other civilizations: By the parts that didn't degrade into "noise." The most possible and realistic way to prove that this civilization existed is the same way we prove that other civilizations existed.

Keep in mind, religious proscriptions are about things people are liable to do. Few and far between are the explicit proscriptions against eating feces, because that avoidance is built into (essentially) everyone. Any proscription against pollution which is intended to include all artifacts (including trails, bones of the dead, the indentations which homes leave in the terrain versus the dirt that would build up around them etc) from before this proscription would be fighting against human nature. It would also require gargantuan, literally incredible effort. There would need to be a god-agency (which you have) not just making declarations and punishing, but also deeply involved depending on just how wide-ranging this proscription is. I have assumed complete and total erasure, since the question and sub-questions presume it will be extraordinarily difficult.

For example, even if we ignore everything from before this culture gets all nano-techy, the fact that their machinery crumbles into dust does not mean it is untraceable. There will be, after all, a rather conspicuous arrangement of dust. That dust will be made up of whatever those nano-bots were--so if the manufacturing process reduces everything to carbon in order to make nanobots out of carbon nanotubes (or just "alters the atomic structure into MacGuffinite, which is ideal for nanobots"), you'll have a pile of carbon/MacGuffinite. Wind will not be sufficient everywhere to disperse this. If you've ever seen intelligence analysis of aerial recon, you'll see that very vague shapes can be determined to be specific objects by their arrangement, positioning, and other artifacts around them. Archaeology cranks this up to 11.

OK, you can assume perfect cleanup protocols for the last nanobots... well, that's up to you, but then you're stuck with your core question of what I'm assuming is your plot hook. To this I re-state the first sentence: Leave some evidence of former eras for your modern humans to find--especially since removing that would require insane effort even for nanotechnology (aka scifi magic, no offence). Even removing evidence of former eras should leave evidence that something has been disturbed, which can lead to reviewing the arrangement of that something, questioning locals (if not on the planet in question, then perhaps others in "this sector"), analyzing flora/fauna patterns, etc.

Not sure if there's an archaeology SE, but that's the road you seem to be headed towards if you want excruciating details. Read an article every so often from http://www.archaeology.org/ and you may find some great ideas.

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  • $\begingroup$ spoiler ahead: in my book this civilization believed that their planet is a living godlike entity, and polluting it was a sin, so they tried to clear all mess they made, but probably it not helped them to stop disaster $\endgroup$ – vodolaz095 Nov 9 '14 at 0:14
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If everything was eaten away by nano-tech, I'd expect to find very few artifacts.

You could likely see physical evidence. Mining, landscaping, old roads, things like that. The land wouldn't appear entirely untouched. Somewhere like New York City would have caved in, some mountain tunnels would remain, the panama canal would be an odd thing to come across.

You may also find remnants of the nano-tech if it doesn't self destruct.

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    $\begingroup$ i think human made tunnels will be nearly the same as natural caverns (by growth of stalagmites), or will be drowned slowly by ground waters and mud. So it will be hard to point out, that this is artificial structures. Only the narrowness of passages will point, that they are artificial. $\endgroup$ – vodolaz095 Nov 6 '14 at 20:55
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Just look at what modern day archaeology can find out from tiny remains of early humans. 10.000 years isn't that much actually, totally in reach of C14 dating for example. Around 10.000 years ago neanderthals died out.

You mention a global disaster as the cause of breakdown. Disasters like that often provide the very best sites to preserve things for very long times.

Examples:

  • Human footprints covered and preserved by volcanic ashes (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laetoli) 3.7 Million years old (!)

    So if those ancient humans had shoes, you could find a trace.

  • Oxygen isotope analysis of human teeth to determine the origin of someone. If some ancient person travelled huge distances according to this, it would be a hint. (http://www.wessexarch.co.uk/projects/amesbury/tests/oxygen_isotope.html)

  • Archaeobiological methods to detect large changes in the fauna, e.g. if the population is large you would find significant signs due to the need to grow food. For example you would have more plains to grow grain instead of the natural woodlands or you would have an unnaturally high amount of food crops. All of this is detectable via pollen analysis.

  • Even if you use nanotech, you need some amounts of raw materials. So if you extract those from natural minerals via nanotech, you would find spots where you would expect large amounts of metals due to the mineral composition but would find none.

Adding all tiny traces could paint a good picture, just like the one we already get about neanderthals.

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I think I'd like to answer your question in a slightly different way, by quoting Isaac Asimov:

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny...'

Depending on the particular method of demise of the previous culture, how fast it strikes, what it strikes, etc, there are millions of answers to the technical question. Imagination is really the limit.

Having a believable "proof" of a previous civilization is less in the technical detail and more in making it seem reasonable that the moment of discovery comes in the form of "That's kind of funny."

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After tens of thousands of years, the programming of the nano tech may have become corrupt, so as modern human civilization arose, there would have been fairly obvious "no go" zones where the stuff was consuming forests, animals or mountain ranges, or spitting out fairly obvious waste products. Even if the waste was something like CO2, there would be unexplained and unexplainable hot spots where the nano tech was working. IF these lasted into modern times, then we would have a relatively easy time to isolate and understand what was happening. Even if these events had stopped and faded into ancient legends, there would still be clues for people to follow to investigate.

If the nano tech itself had become extinct, there might still be deposits of unexplainable material layered in geological strata from that era. Instead of Iridium like we find in the K-T boundary, there might be sheets of graphine or fullerines, since much of the technology might well have been created by nano machines manipulating carbon (one of the more versatile elements, which could function as a structural material, electrical conductor or even storage medium, depending on how it was configured.)

Finally, if this race was as advanced as you say, they may have gone into space. Orbiting satellites would have vanished long ago due to orbital decay, but probes and devices left on the Moon or deep space might last as long as a quarter billion years in recognizable form. The equivalent of the Eagle's landing stage and the footprints of these ancient astronauts will still be waiting on the Moon for someone to find.

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The obvious answer is there would be a whole mess of recycling nanotech instruments springing into action to reclaim any waste. These would remain, presumably working on animal waste, and we would have noticed them working from early in our history.

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  • $\begingroup$ You can't just erase thousands of tonnes of metal (for example), though; the iron atoms have to go somewhere. Perhaps the "gray goo" would settle into a layer of oxidized iron, an ore for the future generations? Put another way, what exactly do you mean by "reclaim any waste"? $\endgroup$ – user243 Nov 5 '15 at 17:41
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    $\begingroup$ the postulate of the OP was that this civilization had huge amounts of nanotech reclaiming waste, then they died. There's no reason for the nanos to have died with them, so the effect of nanos eating up whatever the old civilization considered waste would be clear even if the final product was not visible too. For an absurd example assume the nanos would take a discarded nail and turn it back into ore and bury it. Ultimate recycling! We still would notice that every time we dropped a nail that sucker would vanish as the nanos ate it. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Nov 5 '15 at 22:02
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    $\begingroup$ Right, and that is a very interesting idea - you could have accidental nanotech-enforced nature preserves, where almost any kind of technology gets broken down by the invisible bots. What I'm wondering is what the remains of the ancient civilization would be. Broken-down concrete would probably just be gravel, but what about the thousands of tonnes of rebar from tall buildings? Would plastic and organic chemicals from their landfills now be pools of hydrocarbons, like the La Brea tar pits? $\endgroup$ – user243 Nov 6 '15 at 3:05
  • $\begingroup$ We call that "compost" and never thought it to be un-natural. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jun 21 '16 at 20:15
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The Aboriginal Australians are estimated to have been around down-under for around 40.000 years. So, this could give you a general guideline.

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