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Imagine a society of people every bit as intelligent as people today, on a planet in all material respects identical to Earth. But, on this planet, no one has every invented a written language, or even a proto-language like the Vinca script or Harappan seals.

What is the maximum scale, and level of complexity, technology and general sophistication that a society like this could achieve?

How would the answer differ, if like the earliest literate cultures of Sumeria, Minoan palace society, ancient Egypt, and the earliest literate days of Chinese society, there was a written language, but it was only taught to future scribes starting at about high school age, and only 1%-5% of the population ever learned to read and write, and 90%+ of those who did learn to read and write were only as facile in reading and writing as a typical high school or college student who has studied a foreign language only in a classroom setting is in the foreign language that they have studied?

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    $\begingroup$ I think history could provide useful information about the answer to this question. Literacy has by no means been universal in societies on our own planet. That said, I searched History SE and didn't find any useuful answers to this question: Most advanced illiterate society $\endgroup$ – sumelic Jan 28 '17 at 5:52
  • $\begingroup$ try looking up proto-writing to see the civilizations writing first developed in, those must be possible without writing since they are were proto-writing first was first invented. $\endgroup$ – John Jan 28 '17 at 21:34
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    $\begingroup$ The most advanced society which was certainly illiterate was the Inca Empire; it reached the early Bronze Age. It is not clear whether there was any written language in India before the contact with the Greeks of Alexander the Great; by that time, India was in the Iron Age and was creating beautiful art and impressive epic poetry. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jan 28 '17 at 22:58
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Considering mass literacy is a recent development in human history, societies could be become quite advanced. The real bottleneck is the need for recorded information. Perhaps a class of "mentats" or living memory people whose task it was to remember things could be instituted.

Currently we value literacy because we're literate and people in the past weren't, so it follows literacy make us superior. This is nonsense. Ship's captains in the Age of Sail often had a person assisted to them whose role was as the captain's scribe. His job was to write done everything the captain needed writing down. Captaining a ship was an important job and you didn't need to read or write to do it. Literacy was deemed a minor accomplishment.

In many societies craft and trades skills were passed on by working with a skilled practitioner who showed what was done and how to do it. Traditionally Chinese musicians were trained by simply practicing until they got it right. Their mentors didn't issue instructions or train their apprentices they just punished them when they played wrongly. Not unsurprisingly musical apprenticeships took a long time in Traditional China.

Effectively human history is a saga of societies becoming sophisticated and technically advanced with only minority literacy. Mass literacy only begins in the mid-nineteenth century and took until nearly the mid-twentieth century to become the norm. Every society has some residual illiteracy in its midst and we have yet to achieve a world with one hundred percent literacy. This may be a goal too far.

Undoubtedly written languages are the most efficacious method of recording and transmitting information. However, if societies existed without written language there brains were be as subtle, complex and good at problem solving as ours. So given time, their societies will devise stratagems to circumvent the literacy bottleneck. We didn't have to, we weren't smart enough to find the alternatives, so we took the easy way out.

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    $\begingroup$ Also interesting to note Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series, where an advanced society that went backwards technologically preserved a lot of its information in songs (which were more memorable), along with a global craft system to track and monitor the training of the singers. An example of the one of the "alternate methods" the answer talks about. $\endgroup$ – aphenine Jan 28 '17 at 14:30
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    $\begingroup$ @aphenine Absolutely right! What an idiot I am! To think this is something I knew and completely forgot its connection to this answer. Actually the oral tradition is powerful mechanism for retaining knowledge and especially songs, poetry, & story-telling. Australian Aborigines in Queensland via their oral culture remember the events of the formation of the Great Barrier Reef 20,00 years ago. Details of which were confirmed by recent research. Not down to the technical complexity of science, but an accurate enough story. Much appreciated memory jogging, aphenine. $\endgroup$ – a4android Jan 29 '17 at 1:28
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The society would be limited to living memory.

  • The inability to record contracts and inventories will limit economic activity. They can put boundary stones between two fields, and they might be able to memorize that each farm owes their overlord five bushels of grain after harvest and a fat chicken by michaelmas, but it won't be possible to have a bank passbook or a credit default swap.
  • Craftsmen and scholars will be limited to what they can memorize and teach. There can be no written building plans, no recipes, no chronicles.

There have been times where large parts of the population were illiterate, possibly all of a village or hamlet. But those villages were part of a larger, literate society, and the lack of written records put them at a disadvantage when more powerful interests wanted to take advantage of them.

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  • $\begingroup$ A society that had much longer lifespans could be much more effective with only unwritten living memory - having more time to transfer knowledge to younger people. $\endgroup$ – Peteris Jan 28 '17 at 12:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Peteris, do you remember the details of what you did or learned twenty years ago? Or do the memories fade if they are not used? $\endgroup$ – o.m. Jan 28 '17 at 14:20
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The limit on their sophistication is not caused by their lack of a written language, but rather vice versa. They have to be sufficiently unsophisticated that they don't just invent a written language, which doesn't need a high degree of sophistication. It may well be that they could get much more sophisticated without a written language, but there's no way they would actually do that.

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    $\begingroup$ Written language has been independently invented only around two to four times in all of human history. It isn't at all obvious that other even very sophisticated people would develop it independently for the first time. Once you've seen a written language in practice, generalizing the idea to a new language isn't hard, but it seems that the leap of insight to invent it the first time is a pretty profound innovation. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Jan 28 '17 at 20:22
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If by written language you include mathematics, then no further than early Stone Age. No mathematics means no engineering, masonry, carpentry or any sort of measurement system. Trade can't happen and agriculture is strictly limited.

Most importantly, there is no means of passing on information other than in person, so you effectively have infinitely strict, indefinite patents. The holders can choose whom to pass their skills on to and will likely try to keep it in the family, regardless of potential, so a lot will be lost every few generations, setting them back that much further.

Socially and legally, there can't be too many laws, as people will have to rely on memory, and there will be blatant abuse by those close to the establishment who can make up rules as they go along. Inheritance will primarily be in the form of influence, rather than physical goods, as there is no record keeping. Finders keepers at funerals, basically.

For the second part of the question, what you've described is essentially the Dark Ages, pick any one. The closest one to our own time is the European Dark Age, after the fall of the Roman Empire, though we appear to be heading towards another one, possibly starting in our own lifetimes.The difference here is that there is no basic level of development for your illiterate society to fall back upon, no Roman law or Roman roads and no knowledge of metalworking (largely because they haven't been invented yet); but eventually, this society will develop. Somebody will teach non-scribes, or they'll manage to work out the squiggles on their own then teach others in secret; even possibly develop a second alphabet--it's not that hard, just make symbols and relate them to the spoken language. The latter has an added advantage of being incomprehensible by the establishment, thus safer for malcontents, and hence cooler to the young. In other words, how written languages normally spread.

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    $\begingroup$ I think the early Stone Age is a little out, the Celts are regarded as having been a mostly illiterate society but they were sucssesful Iron Age cultures. Just use one example. $\endgroup$ – Sarriesfan Jan 28 '17 at 9:10
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    $\begingroup$ They can easily get past the stone age, many bronze age societies had no writing, most writing developed IN bronze age societies. But getting to a renaissance or industrial age is impossible if they can't store information. They will have the same problems with technology loss we sow on earth with guilds, the wrong person dies and now no one knows how to make X. That's how we lost roman concrete. $\endgroup$ – John Jan 28 '17 at 16:54
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    $\begingroup$ @nzaman illiterate societies can develop quite complex agriculture, illiterate does not equal stupid, and debt based trade works fine without money, money makes it better but it is not necessary. People are naturally good at remembering debt and haggling does not require any measurements other than simple counting. large population centers develop barter and money as a way to compensate for not knowing the person you are trading with thus not being able to rely on debt. Money and writing were invented in bronze age societies in africa you have iron age societies without writing. $\endgroup$ – John Jan 28 '17 at 17:20
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    $\begingroup$ @nzaman counting whatever is being traded, I give you four chickens for twenty nails. Measurement as you think is not needed, for bulk item people just estimate becasue they can actually see the amount, "that pile of wheat is worth a knife, or the hind les of a cow." I know haggling is all but dead but surely you know how it works? Basic math does not need writing or even proto-writing, Chimps know how to count. This is without writing not without language. $\endgroup$ – John Jan 28 '17 at 17:48
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    $\begingroup$ This answer made several good points but they were overstated. Many real societies got far beyond the stone age using measurement by eye or by comparison. Illiterate people can be fine carpenters. Of course trade can happen between illiterates: small children swap things all the time, and the archeological record shows that people were trading long before writing was known. The idea that there is "no mathematics" without literacy is contradicted by every human being who learned to count out loud before learning to read. $\endgroup$ – Lostinfrance Jan 28 '17 at 18:19
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Seeing as written language's general purpose is to record information, all that would be needed, for this situation to occur, is for the civilization to create audio or video recording before written language. Highly unlikely, but not impossible.

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Perhaps they may have developed genetic memory, or some biochemical way to store memories and knowledge. Maybe a creature that could be imprinted with information used as a medium of exchange.

Advancement would then be limitless and even accelerated. You could copy Stephen Hawkings knowledge and make copies for other scientists to download directly into their mind.

Forget school, just download the baseline education and off you go. Need a career change? A vacation experience? Want to feel a plane crash?

Intergalactic civilization in just a few thousand years is my guess.

-Jack

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