Would a humanoid civilization that evolved on an Earth-like planet with no mainland, but rather, only a series of volcanic islands (many of which are located near the equator and are dormant, thus being exceedingly fertile and rich in natural resources), technologically advance slower or faster than humans, assuming the islands are no more than 500,000 km^2 tops (most are smaller than that), are close together and cover less than 5% of the planet's surface?

In short, I'm asking whether the alien culture in question would be able to advance more quickly than humans due to the increase in natural resources (food, ores, etc), or if the fact that there is significantly less land on their planet would actually slow technological progress down.

I'm aware that there a lot of other factors that play into the technological progress of a civilization, but since trying to include all of those in a single question would be nigh-impossible, I simply wish to compare these two elements: increased natural resources and fertile soil vs. limited landmass. How do these hinder or expand a civilization's technological progress?

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    $\begingroup$ Question: are your humanoids aquatic, semi-aquatic or native to the extremely limited land area ? $\endgroup$
    – Joe
    Apr 4, 2017 at 21:22
  • $\begingroup$ They are similar to humans in almost every way and are thus limited to land. $\endgroup$ Apr 4, 2017 at 21:25
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    $\begingroup$ Look into what happened to Easter Island. They initially grew very quickly, to the point where they blew out all their natural resources. $\endgroup$
    – user20762
    Apr 4, 2017 at 21:34

2 Answers 2


The conditions are not really conducive to faster development; but neither are they implying with certainty a slower development.

  • Earth has 30% land, 70% water; you are asking about a world having six times less land than Earth. However,

    • Of Earth's 30% land, only about one third had strong contributions to the mainline history (most of Europe, northern Africa, south-western, southern and eastern Asia); the bulk of Africa, the Americas, Australia, about half of Asia did not really participate in mainline history until well into the Industrial Revolution.

    • Even if a large part of Earth's landmasses did not participate to mainline history their resources were important: consider the silver from the Americas, the gold and ivory from Africa, the wood and rubber from South America.

  • 500 000 km² is not shabby: Great Britain (whose role in the Industrial Revolution was decisive) has 200 000 km²; Greece (where science and technology and philosophy and mathematics and logic all began) has 100 000 km², of which about 3/4 on the mainland and 1/4 on many islands; Italy (which is separated from mainland Europe by the Alps, which made pre-industrial commerce be practicable only by sea) has 300 000 km².

  • In mainline history civilizations developed in the temperate / subtropical zone; it may be the case that natural abundance in the tropical zone provides for lower incentives to develop science and technology -- and tropical deserts make it impossible.

I think that on a world such as that described in the question civilization will probably develop at a slower or even much slower pace than on Earth; however, probably does not mean for sure. It may well be the case that they developed faster, although this is less probable.

Consider also the incredible sheer historical luck required for human civilization to reach its current level. First there were the Sumerians, who invented a form of writing and established the basic idea of a state; then came the Akkadians, who, instead of killing all the Sumerians and burning all the cities, learned to write and continued the civilization; and then the Assyrians, and then the Babylonians, who made the first great steps in mathematics and astronomy; when the Greeks opened their eyes and learned the (easier) writing system of the Phoenicians, the Babylonian civilization was old and dying, but the Greeks learned the basics of mathematics and astronomy and carried on and made their own crucial contributions; and when the Hellenistic civilization was getting old there came the Romans, who instead of killing all the Greeks and burning the cities learned the language, and mathematics, and logic and philosophy and physics and medicine and then made their own crucial contributions; and when Rome fell there came the Arabs, who translated the books and kept the torch lit for eight centuries, until Europe woke up and translated the books and learned...

Modern science and technology are the result of many — eight, maybe nine, maybe ten — civilizations successfully passing on the accumulated achievements to their successors. This is pure luck. So maybe on your planet they got lucky earlier. Not likely, but then not impossible either.

  • $\begingroup$ Good job tracing the evolution of science through the ten or so major civilizations. Thanks. $\endgroup$ Apr 4, 2017 at 22:37
  • $\begingroup$ I would think that abundance all over the place would slow down the progress a lot. It was abundance of resources (especially food) in comparison to surroundings that made those civilizations to develop faster. Because the rest of tribes around had not so much and wanted more. Thus, such a civilization had to defend themself, thus spend effort into tech & progress. Same can be seen in wars - when in danger, you spend a lot to get better than enemy. $\endgroup$ Apr 5, 2017 at 7:45

Volcanic Islands do NOT have more abundant resources in terms of minerals and metals or even stone, food is also an issue in terms of flora, where did the food plants come from? Polynesia for example imported almost all their food plants and nothing evolved ever from scratch on a volcanic island that we know of. All plants, insects, birds and reptiles came originally from elsewhere. Lava is pretty much sterile.

They also have less interaction and spreading of ideas between groups, and are insular in nature. So while some natural sciences to do with agriculture, navigation and fishing may become very advanced, others would probably never get off the ground.

These are pretty vulnerable habitats to anything like disease, invasion etc,. The island I live on had a disease which killed off all the taro (a staple food), so we now grow an imported variety. Without the tech skills to do this in the old days, this would have caused a lot of grief and decimated the population.

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    $\begingroup$ Good points, @Kilisi, but in this case I understand that the plants would have to be imported from somewhere else, rather than simply evolving on the islands in question. My point is simply that dormant volcanic soil is considered to be very fertile, so at least some of these imported plants could flourish. I also thought it might be possible that volcanic activity could carry valuable ores to the surface, but I'm not as informed as far as that goes. Am I wrong in any of these conjectures? $\endgroup$ Apr 5, 2017 at 17:58
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    $\begingroup$ Volcanic soil is different from lava, lava needs to break down and usually that is volcanic ash which over time (talking millenia) mixes with organic material and is fertile. Valuable ores can come through volcanic activity, but it's not common, and no volcanic islands on earth are famous for their ore resources. $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Apr 6, 2017 at 0:56

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