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This is one of a series of questions centered around how an isolated group of people would survive. Each question focuses on a single aspect of survival. Details about the peoples' situation are below:

In a novel I am developing, a village's worth of people is living on a peninsula. The isthmus connecting the peninsula to the mainland is very narrow, and spanned by a wall, which prevents the people from leaving (there are deterrents preventing them from climbing the wall or otherwise circumventing it). They also cannot swim around the wall. This also means that no land-based animals can cross onto the peninsual from the mainland. The inhabitants have to live with what they have. For the sake of details, assume the peninusla is roughly the size, shape, and location of Mahia Peninsula.

This particular question deals with the resources available to the people, and how they could conceivably live there for at least several hundred years. Another user pointed out that since they are on a small piece of land, they will ultimately outgrow the resources available to them.

How can I ensure there are always enough resources?

It should be noted that I plan on regularly (year/6 months) killing off a portion of the population (my goal is to keep roughly the same amount of people on hand, no more). This will help with population control, but I do not know if this is enough to ensure there are always plenty of resources available.

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  • $\begingroup$ At what level of technology/education are these people? Are their a variety of skilled tradesmen in your starting group? For example, do you have farms that can immediately pick the best places for farms, and start planting crops day 1? Carpenters for house/defense etc? $\endgroup$ – cybernard Nov 22 '16 at 3:44
  • $\begingroup$ @cybernard I'm envisioning 13th-ish century technology. To be honest I have no idea where these people came from (yet). Their families have always been trapped on this peninsula (so far), so it should be assumed that they have a good amount of knowledge, passed on from generation to generation. They should know what they're doing. Short answer: yes. $\endgroup$ – Thomas Myron Nov 22 '16 at 18:07
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There are several types of resources. Let us assess them one by one:

Food

A village's worth (I am assuming a couple thousand here, including children) of people, living in roughly 240 sq km would likely have enough food to survive indefinitely, as long as they do not multiply out of proportion, in which case they would gradually exhaust their food resources and go extinct.

Living on a peninsula, you have an infinite food source: seafood. This not only includes fish, but also edible crabs, lobsters and turtles (and their eggs). Spear fishing in shallow waters would be an easy and practical choice.

They would also have the option to start turtle farming. When turtles come ashore during breading season and their babies hatch, these people would capture as many of them as they can manage, and keep them in large ponds inland. This would provide them with easy meat on all days when their daily catch of other seafood is not sufficient enough to feed them all.

Farming vegetables and crops would be a harder thing, without proper ploughing which would be very difficult for these people to do, in the absence of oxen or elephants, which they would not have available (unless you provide them these, magically). The only viable option in this category would be fruit plantations. Avocado, apple, pineapple and banana come to mind. The people would have to plant several types of fruit trees so that they get a steady supply of fruits in both summer and winter.

Hunting would not be a viable option for these people as the area is too small to host large enough populations of game animals such as deer or llamas. Large birds might be a possibility if they are available. These would include ducks, swans, large parrots and partridges. The method of hunting would be blowpipes and possibly primitive bows.

Bottom line is that if you provide the people with enough fruit trees, seafood and game, they can more than easily survive, if not thrive on their little piece of land.

Wood

This would be used for building shelters and daily life tools, as these people are extremely unlikely to have metal available to them. Wood would be plentiful for them (I am assuming a lush habitat here), easily more than enough to build all types of small and large huts and tools of daily use such as drinking and eating utensils, blowpipes and spears for hunting fish in shallow waters.

Stone

This would be one of the hardest things to have plenty on the region, considering it is far too small for a proper mountain range. Not having stones would negate all possibilities of larger buildings.

Cloth

In the absence of cotton (which requires a proper crop) and weaving machinery, proper cloth would be next to impossible to get/make. These people would have to make-do with animal skin for making nothing larger than loin clothes and breast wraps for women.

These animal skins would include small mammals such as squirrels (about 30 squirrels would provide enough hide to cover one individual) and snakes. The people would also have to supplement their clothing with bird feather for additional covering.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm curious about the stone... You said they wouldn't have much of it, but Easter Island is far smaller and they clearly had plenty of access to stone. $\endgroup$ – Thomas Myron Nov 19 '16 at 0:22
  • $\begingroup$ Notice that in OP you have mentioned a similar location as that of Mahia peninsula. There is not a lot of orogeny around there. If you had mentioned something like Oceania, UK or a Japanese island, then things would certainly have been different. $\endgroup$ – Youstay Igo Nov 19 '16 at 0:29
  • $\begingroup$ I see. What would I need to change about the peninsula to make it rich in stone? $\endgroup$ – Thomas Myron Nov 19 '16 at 1:32
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    $\begingroup$ @ThomasMyron: Change the location. An island/peninsula on a fault line (where two tectonic plates touch) would have rolling mountains and valleys. Also, they would have extremely frequent earthquakes. Or you can just handwave it and put 4-5 mountains with a 1 sq km base anyway. No reader is going to ask "hey why are there mountains on this peninsula because this region is known to be so far from the fault lines?" Fiction is for fun and you are writing fiction, not a scientific paper. So put the large hills there as you want them. $\endgroup$ – Youstay Igo Nov 19 '16 at 2:02
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To survive in the long run, your population's diet will have to diversify in range, shrink in quality, and vary hugely in quantity

Diversity:

Their diet on land will expand to encompass a wider definition of what animals count as food than most of your modern readers, 'pest' species included: rats, bushtail possums (if we're using the modern New Zealand example of Mahia as a baseline), dogs, deer, feral pigs (who will in turn eat the human's waste) and so on. If it moves on or near land, and it's not horribly poisonous or venomous, they will try to eat it.

Being on a peninsula, they will have access to nesting or burrowing seabirds, their chicks and their eggs. Gull egg collection (for food) was a major activity for island populations who couldn't afford to be picky. Witness the annual muttonbird (shearwater) take still carried out in New Zealand today. St Kilda and other islands in the Hebrides were also known for eating gulls.

'Odd' seafood will also be a regular part of their diet - particularly in famine conditions. Seaweed, whelks, cockles, seaslugs etc. Whatever can be scraped off a rock at low tide will go in their stew pots.

Depending on the climate of your peninsula, they may also have seasonal gluts of insects to eat: grubs, crickets, locusts, wasp larvae, bee honey comb (complete with bee larvae) and so on.

Agriculture - whether farms or gardens - will rely heavily on human and animal waste as fertiliser. Given the size of the peninsula, I doubt that there will be many large domestic animals around. They need too much pasture.

Quality:

They cannot afford to be picky, especially when food gets scarce.

On the one hand, this means they will likely eat carrion, sick or wounded creatures ("I can eat that staggering possum now, and get Tuberculosis in 10 years time, or I can not eat it now and be dead next week from hunger"), and plant food that's entering the 'slimy yet satisfying' stage: wormy apples have extra protein after all... This all carries some risk in terms of health, but as I implied earlier your people will have to choose between eating something rotten or starvation.

On the other hand, this may also lead to an interesting food culture in terms of fermented things. They have access to salt (sea water) which can be boiled to brine to make a preservative. Fish, shellfish and vegetables can all be preserved in salt brine. Other fermentation methods do not use salt (eg Kaanga pirau: rotten corn). Fermentation has the benefit of trapping valuable vitamins in some food, as well as preserving the food long term, which is vital when the quantity of food is not guaranteed.

Quantity

I mentioned gluts of insects above. However, they will also be absent as a or hard to find at some times of year, especially in a temperate climate.

This goes for the majority of your food sources. Seabirds will likely nest only at certain times of year, plants grow slowly over winter if at all, and adverse weather conditions may prevent fishing during the equinox, to give a few examples.

Your people, being cut off from the mainland and its food sources, cannot import food to balance out those cycles and will regularly face certain times of year when they have low food resources available. Late spring is a possibility. You have used up your winter stocks, crops are growing but haven't matured yet, the weather is too unpredictable to fish and so on.

Then you have to think about famine.

Sometimes, perhaps in those hungry times of year, your food resources will not renew themselves. Maybe your people anticipate seabirds to arrive and nest in early summer? Well this year they will not nest well at all, and the fishing is very poor too. Here, the local climate of the ocean and its currents has driven your food away from shore - as the currents move, the fish move away. As the water warms too much, the shellfish die.

If this situation is combined with drought or flooding that removes another food source temporarily you have a serious problem on your hands. Famine will kill your young children and your elderly through starvation or diarrhea or any number of famine related causes.

How they cope with starvation years will influence their culture in the long run, and will also serve to manage your population numbers, potentially allowing other food resources to bounce back in later years. Quick breeding animals like seabirds will recover their population levels faster than humans as a general rule as environmental conditions return to normal.

tl;dr: There will be years that your population crashes, but through a combination of eating whatever they can get, and not being fussy about the state that it's in, they should be ok in the mid-to-longer term

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  • $\begingroup$ Won't constant hunting,fishing,planting kill all the animals, reduce the fish population till it won't bounce back fast enough, and farming will fail as the all soils natural minerals will be exhausted. $\endgroup$ – cybernard Nov 19 '16 at 2:48
  • $\begingroup$ @cybernard if the population that's initially forced on to the peninsula is big and inexperienced in terms of survival eating, there might indeed be localized extinctions. I'm thinking that larger animals would suffer the most attrition - no cows, no horses. $\endgroup$ – MannerHouse Nov 20 '16 at 7:48
  • $\begingroup$ @cybernard However, smaller animals would be more likely to bounce back as they have a shorter time between generations and can migrate from elsewhere. That wall that stops humans travelling doesn't stop fish / shelfish larva / migratory birds. I think there would be enough renewables to make for a constant (if occasionally famine inducing) supply of food. $\endgroup$ – MannerHouse Nov 20 '16 at 8:15
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If all they need to do is survive, then there is a very simple solution, if each person can gather enough food and water every day to keep themselves alive, then that man will continue to live. Give your people the means to farm or fish, and as long as they produce a days worth of food every day then they will survive indefinitely.

Farming may be an issue, given the proximity to salt water, but fishing shouldn't be a problem, and man could easily survive there with no tools besides a wooden spear or a weaved fish/shrimp trap. Their only tools and structures will be made from wood and plant parts, and since these are renewable, man can survive here as long as the population and plant needs stays small enough to avoid deforestation.

Other resources may be difficult to come by, a peninsula like this is likely entirely composed of dirt and sands, such a civilization would never be able to produce any large stone-based constructs, such as buildings or millstones. The only rocks would likely be small and be no use for anything other than very small tools or sling ammo. Metal is obviously out of the question, and trying to dig too deep would result in waterlogged pits.

So we currently have our people living in an entirely plant based society that doesn't even reach the stone age.

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I suggest putting a nice, steep, jagged mountain at the far end of the peninsula, made of nice hard flinty rocks which will make great tools and building materials. Let there be a robust population of fast-breeding goats on that mountain, and plenty of fast-growing trees or better yet, bamboo on its lower slopes. Further, let there be a large, clear, flowing spring on the mountainside, fed by rainwater and filtered through layers of rock. Now the people, provided their population doesn't outstrip the regenerative capacity of the bamboo or goat populations, will always have these valuable resources close at hand: stone, water, horns, fur, meat, and wood.

I choose goats and bamboo because they're both highly utilitarian and damn hard to carelessly exterminate. I place them on a jagged mountain because the mountain, being difficult terrain for humans, will serve as an ecological reservoir, a place the goats and bamboo can retreat to if they're ever threatened by overuse. It also adds a bit of variety to the landscape, and the possibility of an adventurous goat-hunting expedition, maybe a rite of passage for the young villagers.

It would even be possible to domesticate some of these goats, and keep them in pens nearer to the human settlement. 6-8 goats per acre is possible if you have good pasture, so Google tells me. Given plausible reproductive rates, a 1000-acre goat plantation could then supply about ten goats' worth of meat and leather per day, on only ~2% of the peninsula's total land area. There's also the possibility of milking them. Pigs and chickens are other good options for livestock, and both would be capable of surviving in wild populations on the mountain, as well.

I notice you've placed this peninsula in the vicinity of New Zealand. What is New Zealand known for, agriculturally? That's right, apples. Apples are great because they're delicious, they can produce for many years, and they can be pressed into cider, stored underground, or otherwise made to last through the winter. They do require a degree of knowledge about pruning, and even more importantly, cloning (growing them from seeds doesn't usually produce good fruit trees - strange but true).

Lots of other crops are possible... corn, beans, and squash would probably fare well. Leftovers can be fed to the goats.

And of course, this beings a peninsula, there's also the neighboring ocean to consider. Cockles and mussels on the shore, maybe, occasional nesting turtles, and fish further out - if the acid leeches don't scare you off.

So we've got food (goats, pigs, apples, corn, clams) shelter (wood and stone) and clothing (goat skin). Better throw in some medicinal herbs, some good clay beds for pottery, and some extra trees for firewood - you can never have too much firewood when winter comes. Humans have been known to deforest entire mountainsides in search of it, so be careful of that - insulate those houses well. (Straw works for that.)

A strong culture of stewardship toward the land would help too. The resources are there - as long as the people don't overuse them, they'll survive easily.

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