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Background

In the mid 22nd century, a super plague has killed 99% of human life, many survivors are killed in the ensuing riots and fighting. The few billionaires that are hiding in their bunkers have over many years of violence, built a generation ship. They shoot into space leaving around 8000 humans alive. Those that do survive end up dying 700 years later due to the Yellowstone super-volcano erupting. Meanwhile on the generation ship, a revolt of 46th generation humans take over a small back up ship (in case the larger one were to be destroyed by an asteroid or other collision.) and head back to Earth.

Unfortunately, due to the relativity of space, they arrive 4.8 million years post plague. They crash land and that is where my question begins.

Question

Okay, yes, I know that it is a little bit dark, what with the murder and the riots and all that plague. My goal here is for human civilization to restart on this new and altered Earth, along with its new inhabitants; Gryphans (tree cats) and Neocorvids (the last 5 here). The problem is that I am having difficulty explaining exactly why the newly arrived humans do not manage to continue as an advanced civilization. The only solution I have come up with is that the generation ship is horribly mangled and that the generation ship practically coddled them stupid of survival skill, but this solution has two problems; 1) if a carbon alloy generation ship is horribly mangled, how on Earth did squishy humans manage to survive and 2) if they lack any survival skills, how do they survive period?

So after debating with myself over this issue, I decided to instead ask, why would survivors of a crash landed generation ship start from the beginning at the stone age, rather than being advanced?

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    $\begingroup$ While this does not answer exactly your question, I strongly recommand the reading of the books from the Cycle of Dragons of Pern from Anne McCaffrey. They tell about a medieval civilization arising from a spacefaring civilization, because of a completely unpredicted and ununderstandable threat showing up about a decade after the first landing, combined with a series of earthquakes destroying a great part of the landing colonies. Admittedly, the colons landed on the planet with the objective to refrain from using spaceships again, but not to completely forego technology. $\endgroup$ – Vincent Fourmond Nov 24 '16 at 21:36
  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Nov 25 '16 at 0:47
  • $\begingroup$ I think your core problem is, how do you manage for the culture of the survivors to forget that metals etc exist. Even if they don't know how, if they know it can be done, they'll figure out how to do it. Stone age tech is just so damn inconvenient, that if you just have the knowledge that there for example are better tools, you will find a way to re-create them. Your people need to forget they exist quicker, than they learn to re-create the tech. $\endgroup$ – hyde Nov 25 '16 at 13:52
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    $\begingroup$ It is really much simpler than most people seem to realize even though there are hints in the various comments and answers. While we rapidly advance our technology here on earth we are not developing anything that would help us get back to where we are. Even with a ton of supplies, it will eventually run out. The amount of manpower and incremental building that our evolution experienced will not exist in your scenario. As one answer implies, you need tools to build tools to build tools. They might get back to modern age if given a few thousand years and ample population growth. $\endgroup$ – Joe Nov 25 '16 at 20:28
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    $\begingroup$ Do you really need stone-age, or would medieval village do? Most medieval village technology can be built using relatively simple tools, if you know the ideas. $\endgroup$ – Patricia Shanahan Nov 26 '16 at 21:15

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This is actually easier than you think, and represents a major shortcoming of our modern civilization - specialization.

First and foremost, it's safe to say that all traces of human civilization on Earth are now well and truly gone. In other words, no one is going to find caches of technology or resources just lying around.

Second, consider that the skills necessary to survive on a wild, and dangerous planet are not the same skills needed to survive on a generation ship. Those people were probably raised with certain societal roles in mind. Societal roles which corresponded to the needs and requirements of a generation ship. And suddenly, you thrust these very ignorant folks into a wild situation.

But Andrei, you say, surely they have libraries of materials that they can read up on! Sure they do. They probably have the boy scout's guide in a handy PDF file. However, the Earth's changed in the 4.8 million years that humanity has been gone. That information is not only stale, unexpected situations are bound to occur. Those texts will be poor substitutes for actual experience.

And acquiring that experience / revising their survival knowledge is probably going to cost them dearly:

Ignorant human: Oh, look! A pretty insect! touches it and promptly drops dead because it was poisonous, and didn't exist when their survival book was written

But that's not necessarily a reason for them to devolve to cave-man status. There's a few ways (which can be used in conjunction) in which this might come about though:

1) Ship crashes

Upon nearing Earth, it's quite possible that their ship suffer a major malfunction, and that it crashes. A lot of the crew might survive due to lifepods, etc., however not a lot of survival gear and equipment would be salvaged, and the survivors might also be scattered across the globe.

This is, really, the easiest way to explain it. Ignorant, poorly prepared people with little to no resources ... The survivors would discard their civilized sensitivities rather quickly.

2) A few key people die / resources are lost

We all know how to use a cell phone. But how many people know how one actually works at a hardware level? How about build one?

If a few key people die, a lot of knowledge and equipment might suddenly become inoperable.

If you want to max out the irony index of your story you might have the survivors lose security access to key resource vaults when their leader dies in a really silly accident.

Say that their library of survival texts, and maintenance manuals was lost in a fire. The existing techs would teach their skills and knowledge to some apprentices. But with each passing generation some information would be lost, until eventually that technology seems as magic, and finally just gives out due to lack of spare parts, and adequate maintenance.

If the knowledge loss is dramatic enough (techs die trying to fight the fire which consumed the library) then the situation would deteriorate much, much faster. This would also happen if a key resource - say, a nano-tech creation engine used to manufacture all spare parts and equipment - suddenly malfunctions and is simply not fixed before essential resources start running out. In that state of panic, and with a few emergencies thrown in, not to mention some poor leadership, they would be doomed.

Next thing you know, perfectly civilized human beings are killing each other for food, and all pretenses of civilization are out the window. Read Lord of the Flies by William Golding for his take on how a group of civilized school children stranded on an island devolve to barbarity.

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    $\begingroup$ Pretty much my solutions to my similar problem. It's not that they have stone age 'intelligence', it's just that they have stone age 'technology'. After 2-3 generations, no-one will even really remember the difference except in some lovely creation myths! $\endgroup$ – EveryBitHelps Nov 23 '16 at 18:24
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    $\begingroup$ Technology is like a Skyscraper, The advanced stuff is on top and controls the market, but requires a strong foundation and lower floors to get stuff done and actually make the tech. People at the top (the billionares) have no idea how to manage the lower floors, let alone repair damage to them. The people in the lower floors all died, and so did the people who know how to repair and get them back up and running. They have no way to even refine resources, let alone make the parts that make the parts of their advanced tech. $\endgroup$ – Ryan Nov 23 '16 at 19:48
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    $\begingroup$ Forget advanced technology. The people probably can't even make a pencil. Read this article to see what I'm talking about. $\endgroup$ – Nelson Nov 24 '16 at 1:33
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think this would explain going back to stone age tho. Yep, few people know how to build a cellphone, but people on a generation ship probably are at least somewhat educated - how would they be supposed to start world anew otherwise? Even if all equipment are lost, they should be able to soon fancy themselves a farm starting from basic tools, and I find it hard to believe that they wouldn't figure out metalwork. $\endgroup$ – Borsunho Nov 24 '16 at 10:50
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    $\begingroup$ @borsunho - farming is quite difficult. Building tools requires knowledge of woodworking, and forging some basic metals. You also need to obtain metal to smith. It's not easy to get a farm set up. And people thrust from a safe, comfy ship environment into a wild environment where predators have no issues attacking them, etc. are not going to have a good time of it. Hell, the first North American settlers nearly died of starvation when their crops failed because they weren't prepared for the harsh winter/different soil conditions, and they KNEW how to farm, and already had all the tools ... $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Nov 24 '16 at 14:11
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Can YOU make a toaster from scratch?

OR

At The End Of WALL*E, Everyone Starves.

Do you, or any of your friends, or anyone you know know how to...

  • Mine and smelt ore?
  • Make a hammer?
  • Purify water?
  • Purify silicon?
  • Make bricks?
  • Build a water wheel?
  • Build a turbine?
  • Make plastic?
  • Make wire?
  • Make a generator?
  • Make gunpowder?

(Please don't leave a bunch of comments saying "I do!")

Because those are the skills you're going to need to rebuild civilization: basic resource extraction and processing. These skills are the critical bottom of the food chain that your fancy technological devices at the top rely on. Without that "you're a maggot... living off the corpse of the old world" as they say in The Road Warrior.

To get an idea of the enormity of the task, watch Thomas Thwaites try to build a toaster from scratch .

enter image description here

Since your ark is launched by billionaires you can be sure it was them and their rich friends who have only a vague understanding of how things are made. None of them have the practical skills that are needed to be the very broad bottom of the food chain. Your generation ship is the A-Ark of Hitchhiker's Guide, the one with all the hoi-poli of civilization, without the C-Ark to do all the laboring.

After living 50+ generations on a technologically advanced spaceship completely detached from the realities of living on a planet, those generations will be even further detached than most of us are from the realities of living on a ball of dirt and water. After 50+ generations, they'll probably even have forgotten about the possibility of colonizing a planet. They've never known a planet. They'll be the people from WALL*E.

enter image description here

Even if there are education systems, it will make as much sense to them as advanced calculus does to a bored teenager. "Why do we have to learn this stuff? We never use it!" and for once they'll be right. Even if they must labor on the ship, even in a simulated environment, that labor will have little relation to the realities of working in an iron mine.

The scene from WALL*E about "pizza plants"? That about sums it up. If everyone on that ship thinks farming is just putting seeds in the ground, add a little water, wait and VOILA! Pizza! Yeah... you're all gonna starve on Earth.

You have this:

enter image description here

You need this:

enter image description here

That guy runs a channel called Primitive Technology where he, silently, demonstrates all sorts of basic primitive skills. The same skills that your people will need to survive outside their ship. The same skills they don't have and have no concept of.

Everyone's gonna starve.

Your Precious Generation Ship Is Being Eaten And Dissolved.

But wait! They somehow survived 50 generations in space! They must have some amazing automation and recycling tech! Can't they just use that?

Yeah... for a while. Though if they're just going to rely on their ship for their basic needs they might as well be in space... but people do things without thinking ahead, so that's plausible.

But here's the thing about space: it's very clean and very empty. Your ship can float around in deep space for millennia and hardly be changed. Perfectly preserved except for some ionizing radiation. No need to even worry about micro-meteorites, you're in deep space between stars most of the time.

Here's the thing about the Earth: it has an oxygen atmosphere and water and temperature variations and weather and life. Oxygen is one of the most corrosive substances in the universe. Water is one of the best solvents. Life will get into ANY crack. After a few years the alloys and metals and plastics will begin to break down. Tiny plants and roots will worm their way into any crack. Insects will get in, as they always do.

The inhabitants will likely be absolutely terrified as they watch their ship be slowly consumed by tiny monsters and green "infections" that they can never seem to eradicate.

The carefully balanced ecosystem of the generation ship will be disrupted and begin to break down. Everything will break down at an increasing rate. When systems they rely on for basic needs start to fail, they will never come back. The materials and expertise to fix them at a basic level will be gone.

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    $\begingroup$ Relativistic deep space at time multiples near 1000:1 is ridiculously hostile; way more hostile than earth. $\endgroup$ – Yakk Nov 23 '16 at 20:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Yakk It's a very, very different sort of hostile. A Whipple Shield won't protect you from an ant infestation or corrosion. $\endgroup$ – Schwern Nov 23 '16 at 21:34
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    $\begingroup$ ok I did math. At 50k:1 time dilation speed, interstellar gas is like a H bomb going off every hour on each square meter of the front of your ship. The materials required to cruise for 50-odd generations as close to infinitely strong as we can concieve of. Any other means of deflecting it would be equally super-science. If is like saying a scouring pad can irritate your eyes, so obviously you can scrape off the outer layer of the sun with it. But the scale is much, much larger. Relativistic velocity is a harsh environment. In comparison, the center of the Earth is balmy. $\endgroup$ – Yakk Nov 24 '16 at 1:33
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    $\begingroup$ A magnetic deflector at that scale is also super science force field crazy. Look, you can look at rust. Rust is a chemical reaction that rerranges matter. It has X amount of energy to play with and it slowly and regularly breaks down your structure using it. An H bomb is like a million billion years of rust in a fraction of a second. It breaks down all the matter down to a quark gluon plasma. There are no longer protons, let alone atoms or chemical bonds. Anything that oxidization could scratch over a billion years cannot survive an H-bomb. $\endgroup$ – Yakk Nov 24 '16 at 2:02
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    $\begingroup$ Heinlein's "Time enough for love" mentions a new colony, which includes a college professor - who used to teach English Literature. He is waiting for the colony to build a new University, where his wisdom will be appreciated. $\endgroup$ – Alan Campbell Nov 24 '16 at 13:57
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Lack of Tools to Build Tools

The survivors had equipment. Radios. Guns. Axes. Antibiotics. But radios break down. Guns run out of ammo. Axes get dull, and grinding them wears them down. To replace them the survivors will need steel furnaces, chip factories, and so on.

But didn't the Planners think of that?

Of course they did. But rebuilding an infrastructure from scratch is difficult and hard to practice. Perhaps the crash damaged all the turret lathes, and the plan came to an unexpected end.

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  • $\begingroup$ hmm, ingenious. I feel rediculous for not thinking of this, it even makes a unique feel of a pseudo-stone age $\endgroup$ – TrEs-2b Nov 23 '16 at 18:10
  • $\begingroup$ also possibly the tools for re-building were on the main ship and they didn't think about taking some with them $\endgroup$ – njzk2 Nov 23 '16 at 20:05
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"Primitive" humans have a huge amount of technology. Much of it we take for granted.

Farmable crops and domesticated animals are a multi-generation project. So those are right out. Both of these require a way to survive for generations first, then you can start up that chain as you domesticate herd animals and selectively plant the most useful food crops and spread the useful mutations.

So, you arrive, you'll be at the hunter-gatherer and fisher technology level, at least as far as food is concerned. All of the fancy toys won't get you out of that (barring magic hydroponics or the like). With any kind of population growth, the tools from the ship will be at best rare items.

Death rates are likely to be high, especially once food runs out. If the ship arrives short on supplies, they may have to flee the crash site immediately with only the stuff they can carry. If it lands somewhere harsh, this may result in a huge death rate.

A far more "prepared" group who died completely includes the various arctic expeditions. Long before they died, reports exist that they where insane from malnutrition, harsh environment, and cannibalism.

A ship that crash landed (even barely damaged), low on supplies, in an arctic region could have a 99% death rate prior to reaching land where they could feed themselves off foraging. Most of their tools would be lost. The humans that survived would be seriously scarred; perhaps the next generation would be smaller than the first. Legends of the great sky-ship would exist, together with legends of how to make technology. "Magical" heirlooms from the ship would exist, often not used for their intended purposes.

Those heirlooms would be lost and break down. The people would breed and grow. They would expand over the world. But they would only have legends of their time in space even a generation or two later.

Those that found the ship might not even be able to get back into it, as they don't know the lock combination or are not recognized as crew.

Even simple technologies like the wheel require a lot of infrastructure to make worthwhile. Being able to make tools from the environment (like stone tools) would be worth far more than remembering obscure and inaccurate rules on how to smelt iron, none of which is nearby anyhow.

Some of the survivors may have tried to generate stories that teach their descendants how to develop technology a bit faster, but those could easily be lost or warped beyond usefulness.

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    $\begingroup$ I'd say that from a fiction-writing perspective, a good way to handle the situation would be to observe that the ship has a generous but not unlimited supply of food and technological artifacts, and so the colonists will need to transition to harvesting their own materials. The materials and knowledge on the ship could let them survive long enough to develop farms and such, and might give something of a head start compared to the Stone Age, but developing them into sustainable technologies would pose major challenges. $\endgroup$ – supercat Nov 24 '16 at 22:39
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    $\begingroup$ And even worse, your ship's population will be too large to survive as a single hunter-gatherer tribe, so they of necessity will need to split up in smaller groups over a wide area. And better hope that some of them figure out how to make basic fish traps and snares before everyone starves or dies from food poisoning after eating toxic plants. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Nov 25 '16 at 9:40
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You don't need to mangle the ship; you just need to mangle the information

Information is the key here. Unless your humans are cybernetically augmented post-humans with truly phenomenal memories, there's no way they would have the knowledge to build an advanced society in their heads. Rather, that data would be on the ship's computer - and computer data is fragile. There's a reason you're constantly reminded to back up your data.

A lot of things could cause the ship's memory banks to be corrupted. Strong magnetic fields, physical compromise of the data store, even something as simple as a loss of power, could leave the information irretrievable. The crew would then be thrown back on what they could remember and what they could figure out for themselves.

A generation ship is not a good place to raise generations of rugged individualist survivors. There are no construction projects on a generation ship for your engineers to practice on, there are no new features of the world to research, no crops to raise - or rather, what crops need to be raised are grown in conditions entirely different from anything planet-side - no rivers to be diverted, etc, etc... The crews lives up to this point will not have prepared them for living away from an environment controlled by their computers. Many would die; the survivors would be thrown back to first principles.

A technological civilisation needs infrastructure

The Remade Earth isn't going to have a ready-made transportation network to bring spare parts from factories to consumers; of course, this doesn't matter much since there aren't any factories stamping out spare parts, or oil rigs pumping out fuel. No power lines, no power stations, no cell towers, no rubber plantations or wheat farms. All of this needs to be built from scratch, in the face of a (presumably) hostile planet.

A technological civilisation needs stability

I have a job. I work every day processing data, passing it back and forth between various entities. I don't grow my own food. I can get away with this because I live in a stable, predictable world, where I know from day to day what to expect.

Throw in war, or political upheaval, or just plain unpredictability, and suddenly I'm thrown back on my own resources. I need to make sure my food supply is stable, make sure I have clean water to drink, make sure I have fuel to power my heaters and vehicles. I no longer have the time to waste moving data around, so anyone relying upon my data is no longer able to do their job; they're thrown back on their resources as well.

This group started out as mutineers; it would hardly be surprising if it turned out that there were internal factions, different leaders striving for power with one another and upsetting the delicate balance you need to maintain an advanced technological society.

Frankly, the question in this scenario isn't why didn't people hold on to advanced technology; it's how did they survive at all?

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The rebels that return are led by a charismatic leader that plays on their emotions. They dismiss scientific thinking and feel that anything the pre-planned manual says is to be dismissed with extreme prejudice. Their faith will see them through—they know better than the ancients or anyone that would tell them otherwise, specifically including anyone with any real education.

Without a huge infrastructure to buffer and buttress such movements, technical know-how will disappear in a generation.

Just look at the anti-science, anti-authority mindset that’s around today, and imagine them in this isolated population. It fits well with the rebellion idea of the plot.

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Children need to be raised. If you drop a million four year-olds on a fertile continent, some will survive but all knowledge and civilization will be lost. All of it.

It probably happened before.

Native Americans, meaning the tribes, might be the byproduct of friendly diseases completely wiping the previous civilization. The American wasn't known to have casually transmittable ("friendly") diseases pre-contact, so concepts like isolation and epidemic were unlikely to exist. A strong line of thought has the Americas as a populous, and diverse land with a mixture of rural and urban areas. Then a disease comes and wipes out 99.9% of everyone, breaking the chain of civilization. Also the civilization built in wood, wrote in string, and decays quickly enough that the break cannot reconnect to past knowledge. The modern tribes are the "Lord of The Flies" people left over. And stone age is extra hard without domestic animals.

For a story of a world without the break in civilization, read "Freedom's Landing". It takes almost a week for a few thousand random city dwellers to advance to indoor plumbing. In contrast, "Earth Abides" features such a death rate that the chain is mostly broken; even reducing the population of the United States to under a hundred people preserves some knowledge. There are a number of stories where people leave notes to restart civilization, e.g., "Canticle for Lebowitz" or "Footfall".

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Shamelessly stealing ideas from David Weber (mostly, Dahak series):

  1. For whatever reason, a religion arose among them that views advances in technology/science/inventions as sinful.

    Trivial to explain - the cause of original problem was biotechnology, so to prevent recurrence, the billionaires who built the generation ship decided to institute a "no progress" type religious practices. Over many years, that mutates into "no technology/science at all" religion, probably helped along by a less than sane "prophet" or two. Anyone who invents something new kets offed immediately, in public rituals.

  2. Pharaon/helot model (yes, I know i'm mixing my ancient civilizations. it just sounded way cooler).

    A small cadre of power holders on original ship decided that since they are heading back to Earth, they can take over control, and use the rest of population as slaves. As such, they killed off anyone who knew stuff (engineers, medics, etc...) who wasn't already part of the power circle's supporters.

    They also conspired to offload the rest of ship population without any technology, probably using fake emergency.

    Without knowledge base or access to technology, the rest fall into stone age in one generation.

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    $\begingroup$ I was going to write something similar, but then I noticed you beat me to it. One of my favorite books :-) $\endgroup$ – Tonny Nov 24 '16 at 12:55
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    $\begingroup$ It is disturbing how many people are quick to label anti-progress, anti-science people as "religious," or even to suggest that religion is a good way to do this at all. Historically, leaders who abused religion have at times slowed certain specific advancements, but religion overall has been a great conduit for scientific and technological advancement. It is only ever very few, very small minorities who shun advancement, though these groups are often what people pay attention to. Nothing in this answer is religious at all, yet religion is invoked without apparent reason. Is it just for flavor? $\endgroup$ – Loduwijk May 9 '17 at 23:02
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There are very few reasons to live in agricultural or industrial society if population density is low enough to sustain a hunter-gatherer economy. According to Marvin Harris'Cannibals and Kings book, hunter-gatherer economy is the optimum economy in terms of work needed to make a living. That is, stone age people worked a lot less than people of any other time. In other words, nobody would switch to agriculture and husbandry if they can just gather and hunt, and hunting-gathering is always possible and easy if you have enough space and very low population.

Of course, there are some contemporary things that you would like to keep even if you have an stone age economy, like modern medicine, but that might be impossible to keep alive for an small society.

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With minor modifications to the story, there is a good way to do this:

Your rebels don't send a ship back to Earth full of themselves; they know it will take too long and they'll die before they get home. Instead, they capture some of the Generation ship's automated DEMETER (Digital Embryo Maintenance, Egress, Therapy, Education, and Recreation) modules and install those on their ship before launch - you can freeze gametes for long travel, but full adult humans, not so much.

Not to worry if all your caregivers don't survive the journey either; the DEMETER is fully equipped with all the means necessary to fertilize an egg and nurture it into a fetus ready for decanting, at which point the TER part of the module takes over and rears your child to a minimum of self-sufficiency using its extensive memory banks, service robots, and metrology components to educate, nurture, and acculturate your young ones even without adult human presence. It runs on a nuclear reactor, so it can operate for quite some time unaided.

Definitely make sure that a dedicated computer scientist performs the installation, however, to make sure you have the software limits correctly set for each knowledge module; just a single master bit can be flipped to enable or disable the entire library, while each submodule also has its accessibility controlled so that you don't end up passing on any information unsuitable for your young. You wouldn't want to leave that master bit unset, for example, if you knew you wouldn't be around to help your babies out...

And when the goddess Demeter finally shuts down, well, people usually don't take it too well when their religion explodes in their faces. There would be plenty of blame to pass around, and probably plenty of retribution. After the ashes slept in the dirt and the people stopped fighting because they had all fled to where their persecutors could not find them, the scattered tribes of man would have to start again.

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    $\begingroup$ I have a story I've been working on on & off for a few years now with a background a bit like this... only my colonists have a suspended animation technlogy, so they set up their terraforming equipment intending it to automatically make the planet habitable and then populate it with useful plant and animal life, and then put themselves to sleep for several thousand years. Only, when they wake up, there are people out there... $\endgroup$ – Periata Breatta Nov 26 '16 at 12:08
  • $\begingroup$ And when I say a few years, come to think of it, I was 20 when I started working on that story, and I'm 40 now... $\endgroup$ – Periata Breatta Nov 26 '16 at 12:11
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    $\begingroup$ That's... absolutely nothing like the above, lol. $\endgroup$ – Adam Wykes Nov 26 '16 at 16:12
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You are going to need more than a few millionaire. To me a few is <10 people.

Using that population size everyone dies, and no one is left to revolt in probably 10 generations. Ship is looted by aliens.

I remember reading an article somewhere that you need 26 breeding genetically diverse men and women to maintain the gene pool. Due to natural deaths,still births, and the number of years for pregnancies(say 13 to 50yr).

Your better bet is, that the ship becomes over populated, and a group are forced/allowed to leave. Many of them are elderly have nostalgia and a few of their family members. This will leave them in bad position where they will barely make it back before their population dwindles.

They will give up, knowing they will never live to make it back to the main ship before they die. There won't be enough people to teraform the planet, or even maintain their population. Maybe they continue to live in their ship until they die or dis-repair forces them to leave.

They will need to live on the surface in primitive conditions because they won't have the equipment to mine or build on it. Advance weapons run out of energy,ammo, or just fail due to age. In the case their population is now too small to thrive, they will eat native plants and animals. It won't take many generations for the rest of them to die.

Their only hope is if they can mate with the natives. If that is even possible the humans will have to live with them, and do the things they do to be a part of any family. Even if the advanced technology survives they will have to slowly train the natives after many generations. Giving primitives tech too quickly will result in socially unrest, and aliens dying by accidents with the tech.


Even if the humans make it back with even breeding people they will probably still need to ally with the natives. 100,000 creatures attack 70 people, the people probably die. Trade in low-end tech to gradually and safely evolve them. I would think, nostalgia, alone for earth would cause most of them to want to live on the earth. As more and more live among the natives the ship and most of the tech will be left forgotten and unused except in emergencies. The ship would probably still fail due to neglect or just run out of fuel/energy.

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  • $\begingroup$ The rebels consist of a bit over a hundred, but I see your point $\endgroup$ – TrEs-2b Nov 24 '16 at 15:50
  • $\begingroup$ "I remember reading an article somewhere that you need 26 breeding genetically diverse men and women to maintain the gene pool" -- that's an absolute bare minimum, but isn't enough for realistic assumptions. See: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minimum_viable_population ... analysis of population growth/decline of various species in environments where their numbers are limited suggests that on average, they need around 4,000 to have a good chance of surviving. For intelligent humans, it may be a little lower, assuming they understand their situation, but you still need more than a hundred. $\endgroup$ – Periata Breatta Nov 26 '16 at 12:04
  • $\begingroup$ @TrEs-2b well according to Periata source everyone still dies before they make it back home. Try again with more people. $\endgroup$ – cybernard Nov 27 '16 at 6:52
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Several good reasons for this to happen, even without a crash.

  • in 4.8 million years, the shifting conditions would cause evolutional drift if not outright new species, causing some to die from lack of familiarity.
  • Little to no survival skills in an environment they are not used to. Put someone from the urban East coast of the USA into the middle of the Colorado high desert and see how long they last, if you want to get some idea.
  • A lack of maintenance skills and/or scarcity of parts and materials. Anything that needs batteries is going to be useless in short time. To accelerate the process, you could have your survivors try to charge the batteries and burn them out/fry them.
  • Environment necessitating cannibalization/sacrifice of tools and equipment: Freeze to death or burn things you might need later. Wires to fishing line... tools cannibalized to make spears and/or clubs
  • Conflict and theft. The group could split up, further dividing resources.
  • Other illnesses kill off key people with knowledge
  • population growth forces abandoning the ship altogether. Ship deteriorates due to weather. means of repair not available.

Just a few ideas

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You might find some helpful insight in a TV documentary series first aired in 1978 titled Connections (you can probably find it on Youtube). Presenter James Burke starts with a historical event - a large scale power failure in Eastern North America, puts forward the premise "what if the lights didn't come back on?", and spends the rest of the series exploring connections between various scientific discoveries and technological innovations.

How this helps is that it really illustrates just how interdependent everything in our technological world has become. Bear in mind, that this was the technological world of 1978 - well before the internet became a publicly accessible resource, at least a decade before the world wide web, perhaps two before the emergence of web based shopping and banking, and about three decades before smartphones and consumerized 3D printing. This technological interdependence is what would drive your crash survivors back to the stone age. Well, maybe not stone age... copper or bronze age, perhaps.

As already stated in other answers, to make anything technological, you need to know how, you need the raw material, and you need the tools and facilities - basically, another layer of technology, which requires its own underlying layer, and so on, until you get down to the basics - fire, simple machines (the wheel, lever, ramp, pulley, screw, etc.), math, language and writing.

Just think what it takes to make a computer chip - that wonder of modern technology that we find in more and more things every day from cars to credits cards to our family pet which perhaps more than anything else defines the age we live in. All the processes and equipment to produce extremely pure silicon ingots, accurately slice them into wafers, deposit or infuse just the right chemical cocktails, and etch the right patterns at the nanometer scale (about 10-14nm in 2016), not just once, but layer on layer with everything in perfect alignment. All the problems which have to be solved demand technological solutions which are themselves at the sharp end of a whole pyramid of other technology.

To make a computer chip even when you're starting with all the requisite know-how and some raw materials means you first have to rebuild all those technological pyramids. You have to make steel so you can make tools and machines to generate electricity so you can make the factories to process chemicals and so on and so on.

Presumably, the crashed ship has left the survivors with nothing more than the knowledge of a technological world, at best the information about how to make things, but few or none of the tools or facilities to actually make them. That is what will force the survivors to build up from the basics. If your survivors don't have to rediscover things like physics and chemistry, they could probably advance fairly quickly from copper to iron to industrial revolution, but they won't be able to skip steps because each step is needed to provide the technical foundation on which the next step depends.

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  • $\begingroup$ While this is a good answer, I can't help but comment on some of your timescales... "Bear in mind, that this was the technological world of 1978 - a decade or so before the internet" -- depending on whether you consider the first version of ARPAnet the Internet it either already existed (it was first used in 1969) or was only a few years away (TCP/IP was first used in 1977 and ARPAnet was switched over to using it in 1983), but certainly not a decade -- "a couple of decades before the world wide web" -- 1989, so 11 years -- "and about three decades before smartphones" -- 1996ish, so 2 decades. $\endgroup$ – Periata Breatta Nov 26 '16 at 12:20
  • $\begingroup$ @PeriataBreatta I've edited my answer to address the issues you pointed out. $\endgroup$ – Anthony X Nov 26 '16 at 15:50
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I know all about matches. I know what they are made of (mostly), but could I make one? probably not.

There are things they would know. If the society was pre-wheel, they'd invent wheels. They would know things about basic health that a less modern society might not know. (Don't foul your water source, boil water, cook meat and store it well. Eat fruit and veggies.)

The crash could take care of lack of library information. It could ruin all pre-made tools and damage batteries and so on. Just because you have something doesn't mean you can use it.

I think that while some would die simply because they ran into a sabre-tooth or tribe defending territory, or due to a lack of hunting skills, some might survive because like me, they read. I have a far broader knowledge than primitive people simply because I've been schooled and I read. I do not want to hunt and kill and prepare meat, but I probably could if I had to. I can fish. I could make a snare or dig a pit. I could sharpen a stick, I could make fire with flint or by rubbing sticks together. (It is hard, but doable.) If there was glass from the crash, I could easily make fire. There would have to be some stuff left from a crash, if there were survivors. Clothing, blankets, perhaps some utensils. Padding, insulation, panels, things that could be used for rope or tools or for making tools.

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In thinking though this question, I am wondering about the technology of the Tree Cats and the Neocorvids. What is their technological level? Are they basically in the stone age? If so, why? Why didn't they develop technologically?

As to the question of how to regress human technological development, a few things come to mind:

1) There are no power sources to use the technology they have. Consider the differences between a farm using heavy industrial machines to harvest vast fields of crops verses an Amish farm where the work is done manually, and you'll have some idea of what I mean. Would these space-born humans know how to run an Amish farm?

2) The survival skills they do have are designed for a low - no gravity environment, and therefore aren't applicable to life on Earth 2.0

3) You might consider watching episodes of Revolution and the 100, because each of these shows have scenarios similar to your own.

This is a highly imaginative storyline which I sincerly hope you can make work, as I'd like to see it in print someday :)

-C

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  • $\begingroup$ They didn't develop more advanced tech for the same reason the human stone age lasted 500 000+ years, they are getting to it. The agricultural revolution only recently happened and they are getting into the new world of tech $\endgroup$ – TrEs-2b Nov 23 '16 at 20:53
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Why would they be able to re-build an advanced civilization? It’s damn hard.

Imagine an airplane or ship crash-landing in a desolate place. Even if it’s equipped for an exploration with all kinds of survival tools and specialists you’d have a hard time rebuilding a modern civilization. All those precious electric devices and power tools are pretty much useless as soon as you run out of fuel or your solar panels and batteries die. The best approach would probably be to turn a diesel generator into a water-powered generator and try to get some kind of metalworking and glass industry started (hand-powered and without fossil fuel furnaces, mind you). However, merely surviving and acquiring enough food would be hard enough.

If it’s not hard enough, imagine the same with a cruise ship or civilian airplane.

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The small back-up ship is a small back-up ship

Sure, the vast generation ship carries highly advanced recyclers and fabricators. Its ability to produce new stuff, and maintain the population of humans aboard in luxury for hundreds of generations nears the miraculous. Unfortunately the revoltees took a small back-up ship designed to go on shorter runs. Sure, it has a 3d-printer, air recycling, and water purification, and it can fabricate food from the rather large store of NutriCapsules but beyond that? Good luck getting it to build you an axe, some traps, a house, or a lighting rig.

At first, of course, the survivors will stick close and scavenge from the ship but, ultimately, they need to learn to survive without it and they lack the skills to bootstrap civilisation without the fabricators on the mothership. Their children, born into a world of hunting and gathering, lack interest in spending the first thirty years of their life in education and so there's a sharp drop in understanding and knowledge within a generation and within two the deep depths of knowledge on the ship's computers are simply so much gibberish. Without paper, and with the information on the computers no longer relevant, even written language rapidly diminishes in importance and is largely lost.

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They aren't fools, they are explorers!

I partially agree but mostly disagree with most answers as the result of their claims are that the people on the space ship are ignorant fools. This is of course not the case as the ship would not be able to go anywhere with ignorant fools piloting it, they would all die in the first fire that occur, and most of the information in a proper survival guide is not getting stale at all. A proper survival guide is not a check-list of things that are safe, a proper one teaches you how to identify harm and how to carefully check new stuff if it is safe. Exploration is about discovering things new and they were originally bound for a new star - returning to a completely remade earth is no difference compared to arriving to a new planet, and I can assure you that the crew will be prepared.

This is the behaviour of a fool or a five year old: "Oh, look! A pretty insect! touches it and promptly drops dead because it was poisonous, and didn't exist when their survival book was written"

A ship intended to send humans away so they can colonize a new planet contains adventurers and explorers. A proper explorer would carefully examine the insect and gradually test exposure to it before concluding whether it is safe or not.

Why aren't there fools on the space ship?

On the ship are living, adult humans with assorted set of knowledge (provided that it is a generation ship and not a ship that only sends genetic information). While they might be reliant on the tech they use on an every day basis on the ship, a vast majority of the people will be able to re-create it when they need to. Why would they have this knowledge? Simple: to survive in space, you need to plan for that the worst will occur at the most inconvenient moment and probably several times over. Therefore, those on a space ship will also have the knowledge of how to repair the ship (which requires them to have at least basic understanding of engineering and science). Each person will carry their own bit of speciality as well as basic understanding of nearby field and none of them will have unique knowledge since the risk of the entire crew dying is too large if any single person with unique knowledge dies. That is, as long as the spaceship contains living, adult humans, then all of the knowledge required for survival will be present several times over. Survival will be practised and they will be prepared for emergencies as they have the mission to make mankind survive!

  • Why would they practive survival - they are on a spaceship with tons of tech that does everything? - Well, the main idea of the original ship is to prepare the inhabitants of the ship of a completely new world - returning to earth, which have taken a completely new look after mankind left, is no different than arriving to a completely new one. Unless they intend to live all future generations on a ship, then the people are prepared for exploring new worlds!

  • But only a small fraction of the original ship arrives - It might matter, but essentially should not. My guess on the minimum viable population of humans would be around a thousand individuals, but it seems to be as low as 160. As long as it is more than 100 individuals, then it would be ample of people to make all base knowledge survive (unless every single one of them happen to be arts or English majors). Regardless of the real MVP number for humans, the main ship will contain several times that number to ensure survival and no "rebel ship" would leave if they know that they are too few to survive

  • The ship back to earth only contains genetic information - Then there will be major issues, and this would be the case where the lack of knowledge would actually produce fools on the space ship. If the people are conceived (and, hopefully brought to adulthood) just before the ship reaches earth, then there are major risk of loss of knowledge as they will not have had as much time to practice and to study. If the knowledge database of the ship is corrupt or missing, then they are either misinformed or not educated at all and they will most likely end up on a near stone age

So what will then happen when they arrive on Earth?

So, what would actually happen when they land/crash? Well, information will be lost and this, as many pointed out, is the key issue to how they can go back in tech-level to a more primitive state. However, how far back they go totally depends on how and why they crash, as well as how earth looks when they arrive. When it comes to information loss, then I think that Adam Wykes' answer is the only one that would allow the stranded humans to go all the way back to stone age like conditions, all other would create hybrid versions with "a lot" higher base tech.

Tech-level based on starting scenario:
  • The people landing are the result of genetic construction after landing or just before landing/crashing. No one would be older than, say 18-25 years and no information have been possible to pass on through generations. They will have whatever information that the computers/robots could maintain, but if that information is lost or corrupt then they will likely not have skills or knowledge which is practical for survival. They would (hopefully) be genetically enhanced to survive (stronger, smarter and more resilient than the modern human), but will need to start from scratch. This would be pretty close to stone age level of tech and they would most likely be hunter-gatherers as they probably would lack the information of how to farm. They might be able to read and write and might possibly have artifacts from the ship, otherwise information will be given orally and story telling will be an important part of their culture. They will most likely have trouble taming fire to begin with.

  • Generation ship lands/crashes. The people on board will have (no less than basic) understanding about engineering, physics, chemistry, biology, etc., and will be able to survive much better as they do not need to re-create as much knowledge. If the ship library survives, then they will be able to access that and use the information inside, should anyone with rare knowledge die. They will salvage and use whatever they can from the ship and start making shelter and tools fairly quick. They would start off somewhere around iron age type of tech (maybe even medieval if they are lucky with resources)and would likely try to start villages with farms. If a lot of people die during the landing, then they will have harder time to survive, but they will not go back much in knowledge (as there still need to be more people than MVP for them to survive at all). They will know how to read and write and will likely try to write instructions for future generations. They should not have any trouble taming fire.

  • Your setting is not starting from the initial landers. If the people you start your game/story from are not first generation landers, then their tech-level will depend on how many generations which have passed. There is a risk that they will have enough set-backs throughout the generations which would toss them back to stone age level of tech, but this would only occur if all but a group of children would die. If the original landers managed to build some sort of village and the children would have access to that, then they would (hopefully) be able to obtain knowledge from the created tools they find. There is, of course, a risk that the reason all adults died is because the village got raided and everything is destroyed, which means the survivors start with whatever memories they have and will need to re-create the rest. There is also a chance that they have adapted well enough to the environment to be the dominant life around their territory; this would give them tools and weapons suitable for how long they have been staying on the planet (e.g., they most likely have hammers, axes, knives of either stone or metal and possibly have bows, ploughs and other more advanced tools). Fire is probable but not a sure thing.

  • Resources are very scarce. If the landers have trouble finding resources, then they will have trouble making tools. A well educated team of explorers will, naturally, not be able to make iron tools if they cannot find iron to begin with. They should not have much trouble making stone tools, but how advanced things they can build is totally limited to the resources they can find. How well they will adapt to new materials they find will depend on their initial settings: A generation ship will have educated people whom can quickly adapt as they have the knowledge, whereas a ship with kids created from genetic information will most likely not develop as fast.

  • There are other, advanced, intelligent life forms. The question mentioned Gryphans and Neocorvids as co-inhabitants of the planet. They will influence the humans starting tech depending on how well developed they are. Both the Gryphans and Neocorvids ought to be fairly similar in tech relative each other as a too big difference will cause one of them to conquer the other. If they are much advanced, such as medieval or higher tech level, then humans will be able to trade or steal tech from them to improve their own starting tech. However, since you seem to want the humans to start at a stone age level, then I would say that the Gryphans and Neocorvids should not be much more advanced than somewhere around bronze age or lower. They should preferebly be on stone age tech too, but you can give them more advanced tech if you want as they might not want to share it freely and you can have interaction with Gryphans or Neocorvids as a means for the humans to obtain tech or material to survive. As long as the gap is not too big between the groups, then interaction will be fairly equal and no group will dominate too much (compare to how it was when Europeans met Indians while discovering America).

Can I make a toaster from scratch?

Yes, I can (and while obtaining all the ore will be pretty tedious, the most difficult part is actually to generate the electricity for a proper toast from scratch). I have based my answer on that I actually would be able to survive wilderness pretty well with just a knife, an axe and some rope (I have tried); I might not be representing the average modern human as I do have an engineering degree and I spent my youth in the forest as a scout, but that would be the type of people we send on a generation ship, not the average modern human. And, as the question begs for it:

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe. -Carl Sagan

TL;DR

You can pretty easily explain a set-back to stone age tech if you follow Adam Wykes' answer, or if there are so much death among the first landers that all knowledge manages to get lost before it is passed on. However, don't make the first landers from a generation ship stupid, because they will most likely not be!

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As a simple alternative, the ship reaches Earth after its long trip, but the landing system fails to engage. Upon crash landing, one of the system's power supply systems goes critical, and explodes. Most of the blast is contained by the safety systems, but the resulting electromagnetic pulse fries all of the circuitry across the entire ship.

The ship is now a worth a little more than a paperweight, as anything that was electronic in nature, including replicators, nanobots, computers, communication systems, all the technology they've brought with them, and managed to keep running those many years have all been destroyed, and all of the knowledge databases on the ship's computers are lost.

Even if they had all the knowledge in their heads, there's simply no way they can rebuild everything or even document everything, so a lot of knowledge could be lost for many decades or longer. While they may be the smartest people on the planet, which may not be saying much, without the tools to rebuild any of the technology, they'd be nothing better than hunter/gatherers until they can find the resources to build new technology, which may very well take several generations...

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So after debating with myself over this issue, I decided to instead ask, why would survivors of a crash landed generation ship start from the beginning at the stone age, rather than being advanced?

Look around you. Anything you see, anything, is man-made. Every item, device, object consists of dozens if not hundreds or thousands of parts. Every single part has been made by someone, or more likely, by some factory. Now this are only your household items; think about the machines, factories etc. - they are even more complex as they all are highly engineered today and have to fit together "just so".

What we have today is absurdly complex. Nothing whatsoever of our modern stuff can just be "made" by whatever guy sitting in the jungle with some tools he brought from outer space. We cannot even make what they had in the medieval times because that more simple knowledge has been lost as well - and back then, specialization had kicked in already, knowledge was precious. It took literally thousands of years of steady progress.

Stand up from your chair now, get outside with some very basic tools, and try to build anything - a chair, a table, from "first principles". Go and fell a tree, try to build something from it that vaguely resembles civilization. You very likely can't.

Your space people will start out with some resemblance of modern man (speach, clean clothes etc.), but will quickly erode down to the basics - people scrounging the ground for roots to eat, etc. Within a generation or two, their knowledge will surely be lost or turned into useless religion, as whatever they knew before will help them not the slightest to survive on earth.

Of course, as author, you have some powers here. They would likely have the same thoughts on their home voyage, and prepare in some way... but how to avoid falling back to stone-age was not your question.

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A crash landing would cause irreparable damage to the ship.

Additionally, some people might actually want to leave the ship and seek a new life. (This is the purpose of returning to earth anyway.) With out some logistics and trade, maintaining advanced tech could become incredibly difficult and impractical.

As far as other aspects, rather than post an extended answer, I think I will simply that that just because humans lack iPads doesn't mean they can't survive brilliantly. Being human also entails a knack for surviving and adapting.

Now those links contain stories where humans live on despite a scarcity of natural resources, although with great suffering.

But if a ship crash landed in a fertile area, humans would have a distinct advantage over local fauna, who would be adjusted yet because their natural predator or prey instincts wouldn't yet be adapted to a human presence after such an extended absence. Meaning that human wouldn't be looked at as prey by predators, nor as predators by prey.

A hunter-gatherer society would do quite well for itself so long as it ranged far to avoid depleting nearby resources.

Humanity could in fact thrive.

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So they have crash landed.

Their tech(that which survives) won't last for ever. Most tech requires a power source. Have the survivors need to build a shelter with the left over tech.

Have the native wildlife constantly attack due to territorial disputes. Slowly the survivors run out of resources and will need to adapt to low tech methods. During these attacks have key people die, there by reducing survival and reconstruction skills.

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Hmm...

The only reason for going back to the stone age - as opposed to the bronze age, would be that the 4.8 million years have removed the genetic evolution that man and his environment has done together.

In the early stone age, people were just beginning to farm. The crops we use today are not at all what they were before man started selectively breeding them for both size and "harvest-ability". Wild rye and wheat drop their seeds all summer long, they fall off if a gust of wind just rustles the plant. Cultivated rye and wheat has so strong grain husks that they have to be mechanically harvested. They also have fewer and larger grains, also suitable for being harvested but not very nice if they are relying on wind to spread out. These cultivated plants would likely not survive in their current genetic setup. Because of this fact, having cities and towns was not useful for man - you could simply not feed a larger amount of people than a large family. This would be a reason for being in the stone age - there is just not enough food available for more than a handful of people in one area at the time. A hunter gatherers life usually does not include dragging many possessions along except clothes and spare food, so lack of tools as others also say. HG-tools were usually made on site (stone axes, fire-hardened spears, etc) and left there when it was time to move on. (That is why we find so many of them)

But, people were not as social as we are today either. Our languages are well developed, modern social skills and social constructs (religion, government, exchange of information, mathematics... etc) will probably lead to towns forming significantly faster than typical for the stone age. I'd say you were in the bronze age, given that 5 million years of geological transformation has made bronze ores / surface iron ores available again.

PS: The bronze age actually ended because the bronze was out.

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Kill the batteries!

Assume their information is available in digital form, which requires electricity. Then their reactor blows. And the one guy who cared to learn by heart how to build a generator from scratch either gets a concussion or dies.

Do you know to build a generator? If the answer is yes, and your generator requires magnets, do you know how to make magnets, if you don't have a generator?

And before you think of getting the magnets from the blown reactor, they are either contaminated with radioactivity, or demagnetized due to the reactor blowing up.

You can also easily limit their access to metal by either using something other than metal to build the ship, or by choosing a metal that has too high a melting point for them to smelt.

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If you took an average city-dweller from now, as someone noted above, you probably wouldn't find anyone who could make an axe or a saw, you may not even find anyone who could make fire from scratch or hunt / kill animals or even identify what plants are safe to eat. Add a few millennia of being sheltered by automated systems in a space craft and all of the above become certainties.

They'd be completely dependent for everything on ship systems... making a generation ship that can land is a virtual impossibility, so people would have to land in shuttles or some equivalent... it wouldn't be too much of a leap to have shuttles crashing... after all the pilots won't have had any experience of planetary landing ever... so the on-ground people are completely cut off from all their knowledge, from all their spare equipment and (quite possibly) from skilled members of crew who would have been keeping the ship running while people shuttled down. You'd send 'soldier caste' down to make a perimeter first, general population down next and the skilled crew last so you'd effectively lose the 'technician caste' from the planetary surface.

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I think that the perfect book to be reading here is Jules Verne's "The Mysterious Island". Verne takes 5 persons (all male...) stranded on an island to restart the technical parts of civilization and some of its comforts from informed scratch.

The key is the (railroad) engineer Cyrus Smith who is sort of a universal dilettant with knowledge and interest in basics of mechanical and electrical engineering and the associated physics and chemistry.

There is a certain ratio of humans who are like that: uselessly curious about everything and in how to make everything work out at least basically. Their archetype is Daedalus and has been around for thousands of years.

The plans of unbuilt machines of Heron of Alexandria and da Leonardo da Vinci survived into our times.

Even if your starship started out manned just by phone sanitizers, there will be singularly curious persons eventually in it. Their skills and interests will appear useless to everyone including themselves, but they won't be able to help challenging and improving them with the means at their disposal and partly without them.

It will be their calling, the thing they idly prepped themselves for.

There won't be many of them which is an advantage for your novel. In the "Mysterious Island", the survivors actually more or less do start from the stone age. It's just that they fast forward through it due to the unique accumulated knowledge and skills mainly of their solitary engineer.

They do keep a few survuvung artifacts in shape and as a resource. For example, I am pretty sure that they keep a clock wound meticulously in order to eventually determine their geographic location with some certitude. I also seem to remember that the cloth and ropes of the balloon with which they were stranded was put to several different uses over the time of their stay.

The story might be glossing over a few details and be somewhat overoptimistic a few times, but I think it is still quite relevant material to read and think over.

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Since these folks are using a backup plan to a backup plan, things have already gone way off the rails. Civilization is more fragile than we imagine, it's not just skills, information and tools (loss of which could alone do it), it's also trust and willingness to work together.

It's one thing to use existing technology, if one has the tools and info. But recreating a technology from scratch is hard work -- and requires time/breathing room that a small, desperate group may not have.

A resource pinch is always a possibility. What happens when their ship's power source starts to run down? Can't exactly go to the village market for a cup of Antimatter. In Michael Flynn's Eifelheim (highly recommended) https://www.amazon.com/Eifelheim-Michael-Flynn/dp/0765340356 a small group of crashed, formerly-starfaring aliens have great trouble getting a medieval society to make copper wire. So going back to basics could get very, very basic!

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Why would the returning humans fall back into stone-age conditions?

Because it is the most useful form of organisation and set of skills in a natural environment. Given that the returning humans used a back-up ship, it may not have carried the full set of tools necessary to re-restablish civilisation on a new planet, which would obviously be carried on a serious generation ship. There's no point in sending humans off to a another planet if they're not equipped with the necessary survival kit. But the back-up ship might have only carried the bare necessities.

If the back-up ship doesn't carry the supplies necessary to set up a high-technology civilisation in the short term, it makes sense for the crew to prepare themselves for the worst possible circumstances – either out of necessity or conviction (why else would they undertake the arduous journey back?).

The best fall-back option is to prepare oneself for a stone-age lifestyle instead of betting on finding abundant crops to cultivate and large supplies of easily accessible ore the moment you step out of your ship. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle has proven itself to survive throughout humanity's entire history, and will sooner or later enable a return to higher forms of civilisation.

Given that the journey takes civilisations, there is ample time to prepare your offspring for the simpler lifestyle on the new planet, through any combination of education, ideology or mental control. And it all makes sense as the prime goal is for humanity to survive, as the alternative may be to wither away as your ship's supplies dwindle down.

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1) if a carbon alloy generation ship is horribly mangled, how on Earth did squishy humans manage to survive

They've got parachutes. The ship crashed, and was completely consumed in the ensuing fire. The survivors managed to escape using parachutes on the way down, but were forced out to sea to avoid the fire. When they landed, they had to abandon the parachutes and swim to nearby (non-burning) land, left with nothing but the clothes on their backs. "But how did they learn how to steer their parachutes?" you might ask. Maybe they didn't, and they were just lucky that the wind caught them and blew them out to sea, any that weren't so lucky were caught in the fire.

By now, the most advanced usable technology that exists is a zip. And just because I have one doesn't mean I can make another one (starting with extracting the iron ore from the rocks?)

2) if they lack any survival skills, how do they survive period?

They had survival skills for living on a spaceship. But being able to reverse the polarity of the plasma coil inducer isn't much good when trying to live off the land... How do they survive on land? Not all of them do. But the ones that do have learned from the mistakes of the ones that don't.

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