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I have a world where there are two groups of people on an island: The Colonists and the Cave People. In true colonial fashion, the Colonists have frequently fought the Cave People, and there's some disparity in technology. I'm very interested in Cargo Cults and what differentiates a culture's beliefs that something strange and new is a simple expansion on existing technology and that it is magic.

The Colonists

Technology level is Medieval after the initial introduction of gunpowder. Gunpowder weapons are rare in the Colonial homeland, and few, if any, are present on the island. They have previously had some gunpowder weapons on the island during one of the Cave People uprisings, but it is a rare event.

The center of their culture is a religious cult devoted to moon worship. Their clergy are often seen performing various rituals that have no true effect on the world. The Colonists have a moderate belief in this religion, but only the clergy are true devotees to it and believe it all.

The Colonists are superstitious, with a variety of good luck charms and ways of warding off "evil." This is more common among their soldiers, who face life and death more regularly than the common people.

On the island, the Colonists are largely farmers, with few heavy industries or mining. Most of what they need manufactured is imported from their homeland. They have access to Steel in abundance, and most of their tools and weapons are made of steel where appropriate.

They see the Cave People as pagans that need to be converted to the true religion or killed.

The Cave People

The cave people are a lower technology group. They can forge basic metals, but the effort required is often too much to warrant their use in weapons. Typically metal is used in jewelry or for religious purposes. The common weapons they use are blades made of obsidian (which is plentiful) and armor and shields made of animal hide (the type and thickness of the hide is a symbol of rank).

Their religion is shamanistic, and tied heavily to the land. They worship the Sun as the divine spark for their life and believe their spirits ascend to join the sun in the afterlife (to the point that they believe if they go outside during the day their spirit will rush from their body to join the sun). This religion incorporates ancestor worship as well.

Their culture is heavily tied into verbal folklore and stories. In order to be considered an adult, a variety of trials must be undertaken, including the perfect recitation of the clan's history. They take pride in their ancestors, and the honorific X son of Y son of Z of Clan W is a common way of greeting a visitor.

Their society is broken up into a dozen or so clans, and only in rare occasions do they cooperate (often warring among each other, making things easy for the Colonists to establish their foothold). When they act together, they are a fierce opponent, having nearly removed the Colonist foothold twice in four wars. It usually takes one charismatic individual to unite the clans into one body (there have been four such leaders since the Colonists have come).

They are just as intelligent as the Colonists, but less technologically advanced. They have, in the past, used captured weapons against the Colonists (often afterwards they are enshrined as relics of some hero or the other's conquests).

They believe in rituals and magic to make their weapons and shields strong, and have oracles who consult the flames for advice and augeries.

They see the Colonists as evil worshipers of the vile moon, which is a pale imitation of their holy sun.

The Conflict

The two sides have been in conflict for eighty years. The Colonists have cornered the Cave People twice, and the Cave People have nearly wiped out the Colonist's presence twice. At the moment they are at a standoff, with each side controlling roughly half of the island (though more and more Colonist farmers are pushing into Cave People territory). There is no formal treaty or diplomatic relationship between them.

One of the wars that almost ended in the Cave People's favor was halted by their leader (who was unbeaten in combat) being killed by a bullet wound.

What sort of things would the Cave People see as the Colonists performing magic? I've isolated that any gunpowder weapons would likely be seen that way, but I'm stuck at what else they would consider magic and try to counter with their own magic or try to replicate (like a cargo cult).

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closed as off-topic by James, Hohmannfan, Aify, Thucydides, Frostfyre Jul 1 '16 at 4:05

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  • $\begingroup$ I like the setting and I like the question but I am not sure it works here. The only person that knows the thought process of your created cave people is you. Plus, we have no idea what tech they have been exposed to in your setting. Not sure this works, but maybe someone has suggestions to make it more on-topic. If not feel free to visit us in Worldbuilding Chat people would be happy to help you work through ideas there. $\endgroup$ – James Jun 30 '16 at 15:42
  • $\begingroup$ You should wait at least 24 hours before accepting an answer, as an early acceptance will discourage more responses. Wait for all the different time zones to have a crack at it first! $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jun 30 '16 at 16:52
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You aren't going to like my answer....because my answer is 'It Depends.'

For this, we can take a look at history.

In the 'medieval eras,' even the common people could consider some things to be 'magic' that others did not. For example, in medieval Europe, the understanding of the physics of weight distribution wasn't common...as a result, many viewed Chainmail as a magical substance. It was extremely heavy when held in the hand, but became light and easy to move in when worn. As a result, many people held armorsmiths in extremely high regard, and soldiers would go to great lengths to avoid offending them for fear that the smith may strip the magic from their armor, rendering it heavy again.

In Japan, highly-skilled swordsmiths were held in similar 'magic-level' regard. This is because the iron native to Japan is horrible...and if you didn't know exactly what you were doing, you'd produce a sword you could snap with your bare hands. Swordsmiths guarded their secrets, so very few people understood the process by which this horribly weak metal could be turned into a proper sword. Thus...swordsmiths were 'magic.'

During the European exploration and settlement of the Americas, the natives first viewed ships, advanced weaponry, and other more 'modern' things as terrible (or incredible) magics...but it didn't take them long to figure out that whether it was magic or not, they could use it too...and promptly did so. It took quite a while for them to be able to reproduce what the colonists could do, but they stopped viewing them as magic rather quickly.

Clarke's Third Law gives us the guideline that "Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology is Indistinguishable from Magic." So, the question you have to ask is 'what does Sufficiently Advanced mean in this context?' Most often, Sufficiently Advanced is simply short-hand for 'we absolutely do not understand how this works.'

So it could be that the cave people, who have a rudimentary understanding of metalcraft--if they see it as a natural process, can see the steel weapons, armor, and tools of the colonists and, having done extensive spying on them, have realized that the colonists are simply better at making metal than they are...and said spy might try to steal the secrets...or at least snoop enough to report back what he saw them doing so they could try to mimic it. Alternatively, if the cave folk don't have a science-like understanding of their metalcraft and view it more as a ritual...they may believe that the steel weapons are magically imbued to be stronger than their weapons...and thus wouldn't try to steal the secrets, believing that the steel is the product of profane worship of the moon.

If the cave people have an understanding of sailing, they might recognize the colonists' ships as just that...ships. On the other hand, they may see them as some sort of magic that ferries more of their enemies across the endless waters as part of the ongoing onslaught against their land.

Rather than go into further detail on each...because I'm sure you get the picture...here are a few other things they may not understand depending on where exactly they are. The ability to raise stone structures fairly quickly. Large-scale agriculture. Medicine (such as it was). Their ability to tame and ride animals. Military formations and advanced combat tactics. Siege weapons. Improved archery weapons (such as crossbows and heavy longbows). Tailoring and advanced fabric-weaving. The ability to make proper paint. The ability to communicate with a written language. The ability to make fires indoors without killing themselves. Mirrors (silvered glass). I could probably keep going, but I think you get the idea...

And the list of things that they have determined to be 'not magic' has probably grown over the past 80 years that they have been around each other.

This is an aside, but possibly contributing as well. Despite the fact that leadership and whatnot of these two groups all hate each other fiercely...you usually have people in any civilization who are quite a bit less zealous than their leaders. People who might consider the whole sun god v. moon god thing to not be quite so huge of a deal. Or, at least...not a big enough deal to be worth killing each other over it. As a result, in-between the 'wars' within the past 80 years, I find it hard to believe that you didn't have 'commoners' on either side trading with each other...especially in a pure bartering fashion. Y'know...a farmer swapping a spare shovel for some meat (need that variety in your diet). Two kids meeting and trading knives. A weaver gifting some nice fabrics to the nearest tribe to encourage them to leave her home alone.

It's one thing to have a purely military endeavor...but you're talking about colonists here. And if the choice is between 'starve to death because we don't have food' and 'trade my spare shovel to the natives in exchange for some meat,' they are obviously going to choose the latter. Or if the option is "hold fast to the beliefs that the clergy in the chapel are shouting about" or "give the local chieftain's wife a nice shawl in exchange for them not burning down my house," again...the latter option.

As a result of this unsanctioned trade between the two parties...it is very likely that the two sides have more communication between them than most people in power think they do...and as a result, more information has passed between the two sides. And that would lead to the cave folk coming to understand more and more of what they might have otherwise considered magic.

So...not really a definitive answer for you here...but hopefully it can help you work through the thought process to figure out where the divisions lie.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks. I hadn't even thought about what would happen when they weren't fighting with regards to trading (or even just looting resulting in Colonist items in Cave People hands). $\endgroup$ – Marshall Tigerus Jun 30 '16 at 16:13
  • $\begingroup$ I would UV this if it was a one-liner of Clarke's Third Law. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Jul 11 '16 at 5:22
  • $\begingroup$ Remember Charles Napier narrowly avoided being burned at the stake as a witch because he could do long division. His early slide rules (the bones of napier) were considered by some to be tools of divination. $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Jul 21 '17 at 2:36
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Gunpowder is a great example of magic, it was invented long before the modern chemistry by simple trial and error which is quite remarkable when you consider the complexity of the process. Anyway the point I’m getting at is that people used gunpowder without any idea of how it worked, if perhaps leaving it out in the sun made it more powerful they’d have no idea until it blew up in their faces. This is where the cultural archetypes of the magician, the alchemist and the mad scientist come from, people messing with forces they don’t fully understand, braving the dangers of the unknown in the pursuit of powerful knowledge.

Your colonists could come from a land where natural magic is uncommon, hostile or both, leading them to be ignorant of it or treat it as something to be suppressed and eradicated, kind of like the monotheistic Europe’s views towards paganism in Middle Ages. Whereas your less technologically advanced natives have found ways to work with these magical natural forces, living more-or-less in harmony with it like the Native Americans or the Aboriginal Australians. This “natural magic” could be supernatural or it could be poisoned darts, tamed megafauna, knowing what’s edible and where to find it, knowing how to avoid apex predators, knowing where to find treatments for deadly diseases and how to treat them, maybe they’re better able to treat grievous wounds and stop blood loss with a certain herb or moss.

With enough of a home field advantage your island troglodytes could be more than a match for colonists with 19th century industrial technology if said colonists are half mad with starvation, riddled with both foreign/local diseases and terrorized by flying apex predators.

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In brief, anything that the colonists do that is beyond the comprehension of the cave people, in the way that the cave people understand the world to work, could be considered by them as some sort of otherworldly magic.

Similarly, anything the colonists do that remind the cave people of the workings of their shamans might also be interpreted as some sort of magic.

However, this depend on the cave people having a concept of magic in the first place. If they have an alternative explanation to magic when it comes to things they don't understand about the world, this might be what they interpret the actions of the colonists as. For example, it could be the workings of spirits or ancestors.

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