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I'm working on the timeline for my world, but I keep getting stuck at the origins. I want to have had an advanced civilization (modern levels, maybe a bit beyond) that was destroyed in a vaguely defined cataclysmic "end of the world" event. I'm very flexible about the nature of this event; my original idea was it was the typical last battle between good and evil and that evil won. I don't have any specifics plugged down.

The races involved are fairly standard fantasy ones, mostly humans and elves.

After the destruction, the intelligent races are essentially reduced to a hunter-gatherer state, and civilization has to develop all over again. However, I don't want there to be signs of the old civilization. At least, not everywhere. I don't want ruined buildings or skyscrapers, and I don't even want a plethora of dug up objects. Maybe a few items in isolated places, but I don't want this to be a major part of the actual story.

Is this possible? Would it depend on how many years it's been since "the end of the world"?

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    $\begingroup$ You can try generating a world in Dwarf Fortress and then read the historical events in "Legends" mode. DF tries to emulate both natural events and civilizations emerging and crumbling - it might give you some ideas to work with. $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Oct 1 '14 at 11:57
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    $\begingroup$ Depending on the nature of your medium, you can also have the ruins of the civilization be everywhere but have them be so technologically advanced that the hunter-gatherers don't have the slightest chance of realizing that they are in fact not part of the natural world. $\endgroup$ – overactor Oct 1 '14 at 13:24
  • $\begingroup$ @CoolCurry en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_human_prehistory It's believed to be about 190,000 years from the appearance of our species to the appearance of agriculture. After a total "reset button", I'd say anything from 10,000 to 1 million years is realistic. And en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aftermath:_Population_Zero suggests that 25,000 years after humans disappeared, most of our artifacts will be gone. $\endgroup$ – Tim S. Oct 2 '14 at 11:58
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    $\begingroup$ Given @TimS.'s answer this idea is not in scope nor am I even confident in my understanding, but I thought it was interesting: Crustal Recycling, e.g. the Pacific Plate moves at 8.1 cm/yr and at its widest point is ~8400 miles, with an oversimplified calculation it should recycle in ~167 million years which in turn should move all traces of anything down to the thickness of the upper mantel (410km). $\endgroup$ – zamnuts Oct 2 '14 at 23:35

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Imagine a human culture that, instead of developing engineering around metal and stone structures, developed around shaping and using living materials. For example, large buildings could use a massive tree trunk as the central structure, with walls made of leaves, vines, hide, or canvas. Some features that would make this more possible / likely include:

  • Genetic engineering technology developed much earlier and more quickly. Or, the world happened to have plant species that were already closer to providing this functionality.
  • Civilizations tended to be more nomadic or migratory. For example, there could be seasonal or weather patterns that meant every part of the world was uninhabitable at certain times.
  • The natural resources required to build with metal or concrete were not easily available.
  • Due to evolution, cultural mores, or aesthetics, people strongly prefer flexible, biological types of structure.

Furthermore, you could imagine that this culture made most of its artifacts from plant fibers rather than more durable materials like stone or hardwood. Or, if they're higher-tech, they might make them out of biodegradable polymers / plastics. This could be either for environmental reasons, or just a result of the chemistry of their natural resources.

A civilization like this might not leave a lot of easily-recognizable artifacts or large structures. This would be especially true if the environment were prone to periodic fires. You would find remains in the same kinds of places we find well-preserved organic remains in our world: anoxic environments like tar pits (and landfills), or extremely dry ones like deserts.

Another option would be to imagine a very high-tech civilization that has learned to create structures and hold together material objects using force fields. When their power sources go away, everything just falls apart.

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    $\begingroup$ This is what I was going to suggest :-) But they would have to have an ability to do genetic engineering without metal machines, meaning they'd have a natural ability to do so. $\endgroup$ – Sheraff Oct 1 '14 at 6:48
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think this is even that far fetched. All it would take would be one religious cult managing to spread the rumour that metals are the blood of the earth and bleeding the earth is pure evil. $\endgroup$ – Mikey Mouse Oct 1 '14 at 9:04
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    $\begingroup$ There's also the possibility of living structures that respond to commands, as seen in StarCraft's Zerg (similarly, Speaker for the Dead's trees/piggies). $\endgroup$ – Tim S. Oct 1 '14 at 15:43
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    $\begingroup$ You don't even have to get into genetic engineering for this. There are real examples of this in the Indian mountains, due to monsoons they wound up needing something that would hold up better than steel or stone, so they built bridges out of tree roots. google.com/… $\endgroup$ – Sidney Oct 1 '14 at 18:00
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    $\begingroup$ The Celts didn't leave a lot of traces, although they spread over a great part of Europe. They built their houses of wood. Though they made some metal artifacts, metal was recycled in those days. We only know about earlier societies whose remains are still there. $\endgroup$ – RedSonja Oct 2 '14 at 13:20
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You can, but you'll need to answer the question of why there are no ruins. Civilizations have a strong tendency to build lasting structures that later become ruins: so strong, in fact, that it's basically taken for granted by any culture with any awareness of history as a concept. The tribes might not be particularly historically-aware, but your readers will generally understand that history is a thing. So if there truly are no ruins, you need an answer as to why.

The ruins were destroyed. The civilization left ruins, but some later force -an army, a monster, the gods, alien archaeologists, or whatever- destroyed or otherwise removed them. If you go down this route, you'll need to explain what this force was, and why it wanted to remove the ruins (if the concept of "want" even applies).

The ruins are somewhere else. The events surrounding the fall of this civilization drove people far beyond the civilization's own geographic borders, and something has kept them away ever since. Widespread nuclear fallout is one possibility: to get to the ruins, people would have to venture for so long through highly-radioactive territory that they would die before ever reaching the ruins. Sunken cities are also popular: the ruins are at the bottom of the ocean, and the technology to get there is gone.

That said, it is important that people die before even getting to the ruins. If they were to make it but die on the return trip, they might carry some evidence back a little closer to the tribes. Over several iterations of this, some bits might get far enough that a tribesman could venture in only a little way, find a piece, and survive to bring it back to his people.

People don't know that they're ruins. In this scenario, the tribes live among the ruins, but don't understand them to be ruins. They think it's all a part of the natural order in a basically-untouched wilderness. This is good for civilizations that grew their raw materials, rather than mining or fabricating them, because it allows for the old structures to more easily change their form.

There was nothing to fall into ruin. You could explore the difference between the concepts of "society" and "civilization" by creating an advanced society that did not "civilize" as we tend to think of it: there are no ruined structures because they didn't build structures. This may be the hardest one to pull off, because you have to explain how the society managed to achieve this level of advancement without the advantages that civilization brings. There is another thing to consider: it is hard to imagine that the advantages of civilization would never even occur to an advanced-but-noncivilized society, so you also have to explain why they did not take that path.

There was no society to begin with. An alternative twist on the above would be to dispense with the society completely: they didn't build lasting structures because they didn't exist. But stories of them were written and shared, and these tales became popular as people found meaning in them, and so this metafictional society somehow managed to still have an impact on your fictional world. But this still leaves questions. Who thought of this civilization? How were the first stories written and shared? Why did they leave such a mark on the existing culture that the stories have endured for so long? Do people still understand that this civilization was fictional, or have the stories muddied so much over time that they believe it was real?

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The irony here is that our modern infrastructure is far less durable than that of older civilisations. Unexpectedly this means (with a few exceptions) that the footprint of more advanced civilisations actually lasts for a shorter amount of time than some of the ancient ones.

Let me give a few examples.

Obviously these both have a long way to go before they're reduced to dust but we're talking about less than a quarter of a century with no human maintenance. Modern construction materials often have a life expectancy of less than a hundred years (take a look at this typical life expectancy chart for building materials), even the foundations are only expected to last 110 years!

Now, consider some of the greatest triumphs of the ancient world, look at Machu Pichu, the roman roads or the great pyramids. Even in more modern times buildings like the Tower of London or Edinburgh Castle. The pyramids are around 4500 years old (there are some theories that the sphinx is even older).

Why do these structures survive for thousands of years? Because they're constructed out of solid rock. The more modern the civilisation the greater the propensity for fast construction, this moves construction methods towards materials like steel, glass and concrete and away from more durable materials (hard wearing stone).

As such removing all trace of a modern civilisation may take less time than you think, this article (which I don't source as a reference because it's simply someone else's speculation) suggests that there would be very little left after a thousand years.

The beauty of this solution is that it doesn't require a planet wide disaster, your population could fall to plague and other life takes over in it's place.

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    $\begingroup$ A documentary speculated 25,000 years would get rid of most human artifacts, save what is on the Moon and some long lived trash see: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aftermath:_Population_Zero $\endgroup$ – Paul Oct 1 '14 at 11:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Paul if I didn't see that one it was one a lot like it, it inspired a lot of this answer! $\endgroup$ – Liath Oct 1 '14 at 12:42
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    $\begingroup$ It would be more important to form their history such that they didn't have any ancient Rome or Egypt than form their actual modern structures. $\endgroup$ – Godric Seer Oct 1 '14 at 15:58
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    $\begingroup$ You can also look at Hashima Island, as described here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hashima_Island $\endgroup$ – thurizas Oct 1 '14 at 16:22
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    $\begingroup$ Actually very right: Also, nature grown in a exponential way: First 10 years only a few little vegetation (no substrate), second 20-50 years trees will help to destroy structures and produce huge organic layer, etc.. After a couple of centuries without maintenance, I expect most normal building being destroyed and under the organic substrate layer. Only specific (cathedrals, etc.) would IMO resist longer. $\endgroup$ – Adrian Maire Sep 30 '16 at 8:48
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Yes, it is possible.

Civilization make structures in cost-effective way. And it means that the older civilization, the longer structure will stay. But when building these structures, only current danger is considered:

  • aging (materials get weakened over time)
  • impact (e.g. if constant flow of water will destroy very strong structures; or maybe some bomb)
  • misuse (when structure used in way that it is not supposed to be used)
  • lack of maintenance

So your problem, is that you want to get rid of structures, that would stay for centuries (as you mentioned modern era). One way would be to introduce something that wasn't considered when these structures were built.

Example for @octern suggestion of 'plant-structures'. If there was always summer, these structures could stay forever. But suddenly sun gone (or not that active anymore), and all plants died.

For modern world it could be some alien bacteria that use cement as food or material for shell during reproduction. And then something else that will remove plastics/metal. As a result most of structures ruins will be consumed and no ruins left (to degree as you need).

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    $\begingroup$ To expand on the civilisation-consuming bacteria and to make them somewhat more plausible: They could have been bioengineered by the ancient civilisation for recycling purposes or similar. $\endgroup$ – Wrzlprmft Oct 1 '14 at 8:00
  • $\begingroup$ You don't even need anything complex or mysterious for the disappearance of metals after bacteria eat the concrete, the exposed metal would be quickly used by the nomadic survivors as improvised tools, and would be rendered unrecognizable as ruins after it's been scoured clean by a few generations of survivors. $\endgroup$ – Jonathan Sep 30 '16 at 1:38
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There is always the "grey goo" option.

Nanites are either deliberately or accidentally released that consume metal and plastic and replicate more of themselves. They sweep through the world taking out all technology.

The economy, agriculture, and civilisation in question collapses, most people die either of starvation or fighting over what few resources remain.

Large buildings collapse as the metal reinforcement is eaten.

Over time the Nanites run out of fuel/resources to consume/etc and go inert.

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  • $\begingroup$ I had a similar idea, but all the grey goo needs to go somewhere. $\endgroup$ – Philipp Oct 1 '14 at 8:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Philipp Nanomachines are small, once they run out of material to convert and become inert they essentially turn into dust and then erosion and time takes over (and on something that small acts very fast). $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 1 '14 at 8:46
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Take a look at the Exterminatus in the Warhammer 40k Universe.

If a Planet is to far from saving the Inquisition can order an Exterminatus.

enter image description here

Out of the four major methods of Exterminatus the orbital bombardment is the one likely to produce this result. The power of an orbital strike can range from small precision strikes, not unlike that of modern surface-to-surface missiles, to the unleashing of full thermonuclear blasts. Specalised munitions are used to control how much of the planet they destroy and are often tailored to particular planets. Often they can destroy cave systems as well as melting the surface of the planet. Alternatively a virus called the 'Life-Eater' can can destroy biological matter, produce flammable gas a a by product, followed by ignition. This produced fierce firestorms that scourge the world and are survivable by hiding in cave systems.

I would estimate that about 50 - 100 years after the Exterminatus it may be possible for Life to start again. (Ashes mean that the world is fertile and the plants can repair the atmosphere) If you terraform it it would be about 10 - 50.

It could be possible to survive such a process by hiding in deep caves or well designed bunkers; regardless, after the survivors are back on the surface they have nothing left.

Note that in the Warhammer40k Lore it is not common to rebuild Worlds that are treated with an Exterminatus due to having the "Mark of Chaos".

In my opinion with a few tweaks here and there and some valley where the organism could not reach before it was inflamed, or a bombardment that produced a concussive wave with less lethal radiation (so that some people, plants and animals survive) could be used as as a "clean new start".

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Since your civilization is set back to hunter-gatherer, I think we can safely assume that the population is orders of magnitudes smaller than todays. This means that there can be a significant amount of structures left, but the population is nowhere near them, usually.

To make this more plausible you might need reasons on why they keep away from previously inhabited areas (after all, people built megacities there because its a nice place to live). Reasons can be

  • Radiation from a nuclear war. Although people can not explain what it is, they get sick, so there are huge forbidden zones.
  • They are deserts now, and the only area where enough plants grow and animals live are near the poles, areas that are today rather sparsely inhabited.
  • Civilization has been buried under lots of ice, e.g. due to earths rotation axis/orientation being shifted, and what previously was hot is now cold and vv.
  • Tectonic movement forced lots of the coastline cities to submerge, while at other places huge amounts of ocean floor are now landmasses. This can even go so far as that the whole earth is just lots of islands now, that were previously mountains (where population density isn't that big)

Also depending on the timeframe, you may consider fast growing plants (that might even have to do something with the initial cataclysm) grow over every building, and cover it; do that for a few decades or centuries, and you have a jungle on top of lots of hills, and only if someone digs a few meters deep, they would discover that the hills are really buildings. But there is probably no reason for your people to do that, so they will never notice, and for them it is a world without ruins.

Also note that your people are probably around in that area for their whole life, so they won't probably go there and "hey, there is a ruin, lets explore that". It has been there the whole time, so it might be mentioned but I would not see a need for them to be a major part of the story. Take for example the via appica. In the past hundreds of years, not many living there would have said "hey, look, an ancient street, lets explore it and its origins". People had a life to live and probably cared much more about how to get food than what they are currently standing on.

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  • $\begingroup$ I imagine that if there were a lot of radioactive land and artifacts, even a very low-tech culture would figure out the rules in a pretty sophisticated manner (how long it's safe to stay there, how to recognize radiation sickness, which artifacts are likely to make you sick over time, etc). You can even imagine enterprising engineers and inventors who are eager to find out how to harness this dangerous power for the good of their people! $\endgroup$ – octern Oct 1 '14 at 14:37
  • $\begingroup$ @octern: Maybe, that probably depends also on the involved society. Low tech ones are likely more religious based, and "never go into the forbidden zone" will not be questioned. Also for them, when they recognize radiation sickness, it will probably be too late, so only the really brave ones will try things out. This might take generations to form knowledge, and it is not unlikely that this knowledge will be kept secret by an elite. Also depending on the amount and type of radiation, already short exposures might introduce deathly illness much later, so no one will want to try again. $\endgroup$ – PlasmaHH Oct 1 '14 at 15:30
  • $\begingroup$ If the old cities are so radioactive that you can't get within a day's travel of them without keeling over then yes, they'll probably be seen as supernatural. But if you can spend some time there, then you can probably also take away small artifacts that aren't radioactive enough to make you acutely sick by themselves. People are good at learning how much they can get away with, especially if it means they can get their hands on totally awesome science-fiction stuff like matches and ziplock bags. $\endgroup$ – octern Oct 1 '14 at 18:24
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Perhaps an Ice age after the civilization destroying event would be capable of destroying most if not all artifacts on the surface, however it would probably require 10,000 years or so for the ice to extend sufficiently far from the poles and retreat to allow civilization to reappear.

Glaciers flowing across continents would essentially bulldoze anything and everything before them or crush them underneath. All concrete & stone surface buildings would be crushed, all artifacts of civilization such as cars, computers, plastic would be crushed and possibly pushed underground (as with glacial rock deposits on earth) or pushed to the ocean to lie on the bottom of the sea floor until discovered.

Alternatively all civilization could simply be waiting at the bottom of an icesheet such as those in greenland and Antartica which are up to 3 miles thick!

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Later societies would scavenge the old ruins for materials.

If the ruins of the old civilization were made of useful materials, you might expect later people to strip them down for their own use.

So many Roman structures were torn apart for their marble and metal fixtures during the Middle Ages. The limestone facings on the great pyramids were stripped off likewise. The only reason the pyramids still survive at all is because most of their mass wasn't worth removing.

But imagine if our civilization collapsed. How valuable would large quantities of steel be after the fall? Skyscrapers would be torn apart for their metal. Consider how copper wiring disappears in decaying areas today -- it doesn't oxidize and wear away, it gets stolen for its raw material value.

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    $\begingroup$ Yea, verily I say unto you - thou shalt beat thy plumbing into cooking pots, and thy wiring likewise. And lo, the skeletons of the buildings of the ancients shall become thy machines of war, and thou shalt go singing and praising Fred, yea, even unto death... (From "The Big God Fred Jumbo Fun Cookbook And Psaltery", (c) The Cult Of Fred, 2014 - all rights reserved, not for republication or reprint without the express written-in-the-blood-of-innocents permission of the High Priest, himself :-) $\endgroup$ – Bob Jarvis Oct 3 '14 at 3:32
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It strikes me as possible but unlikely, if we're talking about more-or-less humans on a more-or-less Earth-like world, barring some of the catastrophic introductions suggested in other answers here (nanites, peculiar bacteria, etc.). If "civilization" has developed and then collapsed, presumably this means that multiple relatively large-scale cultures have developed. While it is certainly possible that one or more of these do not build much by way of structures, or build from perishable materials, surely it's unlikely that absolutely nobody is going to attempt long-term permanence in stone, worldwide. Think of Stonehenge and the Nazca lines: these are extraordinarily long-lived creations because they were done in the local permanent element. The reasons for making these probably are almost entirely unrelated, but nevertheless, people do tend to build stuff and it does tend to remain. There are ancient traces of ruins all over the world, created by vastly different groups of people in vastly different terrains.

If you want to eliminate every possible "ruin," or trace of prior civilization, you either need an external catastrophe or a very, very long span of time. The earliest traces we have found date back something like 30,000 years (that's for cave paintings). I would suggest that the best way to eliminate every possible trace of human cultural constructions is a deliberate, systematic attempt -- probably by humans -- that for some reason lasted a good long time. Perhaps a sort of purge? That way nothing has to escape: once everybody just automatically destroys any traces they stumble on, as a matter of habit, it's not going to take all that long to wipe everything out.

That's one of the things about humans: whether we are building or destroying, we are remarkably effective and permanent about it, all in all.

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    $\begingroup$ External catastrophe or long time... yea, or intent. As you yourself point out, it is not only building that humans have a terrific knack for; the species is also remarkably proficient in, and remarkably inclined towards, destruction. Stonehenge survived in part because of what it's made out of, yes, but also because it initially had no one motivated enough to spend the time and effort tearing it down, and by the time anyone did want to do so, there were other people who were willing to spend resources stopping them. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Najmon Oct 1 '14 at 22:40
  • $\begingroup$ @MatthewNajmon: exactly! $\endgroup$ – CAgrippa Oct 2 '14 at 1:52
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Another approach: They destroyed the relics.

There's some alien race that doesn't like competition. They sent out killer space probes, their objective to destroy any other civilizations. A probe lands on a nearby moon and constructs a bombardment engine. It fires substantial rocks (say, kiloton range impacts) at any sign of civilization it can see.

The locals quickly learn what it's doing and in any area that is to be a refuge they erase every indication of civilization they possibly can so they don't draw fire. Over time the refugees grew careless about keeping all tech items in deep caves and the caves drew fire/were sealed.

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Time is a very important consideration. Consider this Life after People show where they explore how long it would take to remove the remnants of the human race.

Another site, based on the World without us book by Alan Weisman, has a nice graphic that breaks down some of the different breakdown times. In 500 years suburbs would be forests strewn with plastic handles and stainless steel parts, But in the 10,200,000 years section it says that bronze sculpture would still be recognizable.

You could also get creative with technology. A 'without a trace' technology could fill this need. Nature could also do this, laying down several layers over everything. Only by mining in certain areas would things appear from the past.

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    $\begingroup$ Could you please give some information from that show here (like a few characteristic times, especially the longest one), so that the answer is valuable without watching it (remember, the show might disappear from the web)? $\endgroup$ – celtschk Oct 1 '14 at 6:44
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    $\begingroup$ A good improvement, do you really mean 10,200,000 though? $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 1 '14 at 21:17
  • $\begingroup$ That was the most surprising one to me from the website on the long end. $\endgroup$ – Alex Oct 2 '14 at 2:06
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You mention the monsters coming from a "parallel world"? I am assuming here that you are talking about a parallel universe.

If you want advanced buildings and society to neatly disappear, without having to have a specific degradable nature to them or without a huge period of time to pass, you could instead have the monsters responsible for their disappearance.

These monsters from the parallel world, could be somehow transporting buildings to their own parallel world as part of an attack they produce. For example, whenever they slash their claws thru the air, they cause a rift between dimensions, briefly sucking things from this dimension into another dimension before the rift dissipates.

An attack from these monsters could literally make cities disappear without a trace.

Just an idea?

Please be kind this is my first post here in worldbuilding! :)

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Similar to Tim B's answer, the answer to your question can also explain why they were forced to devolve into a hunter-gatherer society. Simply tie the cataclysm into the building blocks of their society. Implying a large death toll and leaving survivors with minimal to no materials to continue. For example, basing all buildings and technology on a single element which ended up rapidly breaking down due to a reaction in the atmosphere.

Buildings would crumble with people inside, devices would malfunction causing further fatalities, all that would be left is a handful of survivors with the only material they are knowledgeable of using no longer in existence.

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Konstantin Petrukhnov's answer reminded me of the RingWorld civilisation written by Lary Nivel. This civilisation which had very high levels of technology fell because of a kind of mold (was it bacteria ? I don't remember) which ate basic component of very necessary machines such as the ones that brought energy to the RingWorld. Without electricity, the inhabitants reverted to less civilized ways of life.

[...]The cause was a plague which destroyed the room-temperature superconductors which the City Builders used in their sophisticated machines, including the magnetic repellers levitating the floating buildings. (http://news.larryniven.net/concordance/main.asp?alpha=S#superconductorplague)

Since The Ringworld deals with the discovery of an ancient technological civilisation, it could be relevant to you (if you haven't already read it, that is).

To get back to the question, for it to be very few things left from the ancient civilization, it seems to me either a tremendous amount of time has passed (it takes time even for a all-eating bacteria/nanite to go through a whole world's surface), either a very sophisticated technology has been used to erase most of the infrastructures (and as a curious reader, I'd hate to be left in a blur regarding anything with that kind of effect, but that's just my opinion).

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If the cataclysm was carried out by a willful entity (aliens, gods, a terrifically successful Luddite cult, mole people, whatever fits your story), as opposed to a dispassionate natural cause (meteors, earthquakes, plague) or an accidental one (level 5 biohazard containment got breached, CERN made a black hole, Doc Brown's fanboy treatment of a historical scientist distracted them from inventing steel), then it is a simple matter to declare that the same enemy that wiped out civilization intentionally cleansed the signs thereof, so as to impede what they had destroyed from springing right back up.

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One way would be to do something similar to how Michael Moorcock ended the world of Melnibone' and the Young Kingdoms at the end of Stormbringer - and in a battle of the gods, it really doesn't matter who wins - the world will be toast (and since it'll be rebuilt by the victors, who get to write the history books or holy scrollery or whatever, I suspect that the ones who win will always be the "good" guys :-). Or, if you prefer something more scientific, either drop a 20-mile-diameter rock (this would pretty much bring civilization down, and if it killed enough critters it'd be a battle between evolution and plate tectonics, with evolution trying to raise up an intelligent race and plate tectonics relentlessly destroying all evidence of earlier civilization), or just torch off a nearby supernova (say, within 10 light years), which could potentially destroy most of life on earth.

Best of luck!

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  • $\begingroup$ Hey, welcome to the site! Generally when something is tagged science-based, they want a science based answer. But you did provide some of that. Do you want to try and find some evidence to support your "scientific" theories? If you have links or logic to back up theories, it is generally better received with more up votes. $\endgroup$ – DonyorM Oct 3 '14 at 4:23
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We destroyed our own ruins

Remember the attitude of societies before our own: farmers looted Stonehenge and the Pyramids for construction material. Explorers burned mummies as fuel. Imagine if that attitude never went away. Ending is better than mending, out with the old, in with the new, and so on.

Because of population pressure, we knock down all the old monuments, castles, and so forth, and build modern buildings. But the modern buildings are not designed to last long. Due to the speed of technological advancement, and the profitability of new construction rather than repair, humanity simply knocks down obsolete high-rises after some decades, and builds new ones in their place.

As soon as some disaster prevents this renewal, the buildings start collapsing. Eventually all that’s left is rubble, worn down by weather over time. Winds would bring in dirt to cover the area. By the time your tribesmen find the place, it could still look like a barren patch of land, or it could already have life, but there would be no trace of the buildings that once stood, nor the rest of the world that was buried by their collapse.

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A pretty simple way to leave no ruins: Have a nomadic civilization to start with.

Nomads don't leave ruins, they might leave a few burial sites or gathering places, but not much else. Depending on technology you might need to deal with wrecks of some kind (or not, if you have some biological/genetic/symbiotic or even slave based economy and society).

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Another thought comes to mind:

Some reckless businessman is looking to use bacteria for metal recycling. Unfortunately, he's not careful about making something that's safe--the reason civilization was destroyed is the same reason there are almost no ruins: his metal-eating bugs got loose and survived in the wild. They ate the metals that make society run and it crashed hard.

How much of society will be left once you strip the metals out? In time wood and plastic will burn. Almost all major buildings fall in the initial plague. We are pretty much down to concrete and asphalt being all that's left--and will your new population recognize the broken remains of either as artifacts of civilization rather than simply some type of rock?

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  • $\begingroup$ See this post. I like the idea of making the disaster also prevent signs, but things have already been washed into sediment, etc. I guess if you limit “ruins” to obvious old buildings, not microscopic traces or evidence of depleted geologic resources and global species distributions, you can have more of a mystery. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Sep 30 '16 at 2:56
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz I don't see the question as wanting to eliminate any means of detecting the past civilization, just have it reasonably well hidden. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Sep 30 '16 at 5:07

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