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How can a part of a continent (super or other) remain unexplored by the apparently civilized majority? The undiscovered part must be habitable but inaccessible, by land or sea, so that the rest of the world is completely in the dark about their methods of war, culture and the flora and fauna. The technologies used by the rest of the world for exploration are no more than ships and scouts.

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    $\begingroup$ You mean just like the Americas remained unknown to the splendiferous civilizations of the Old World until the very end of the 15th century? Or how Australia remained unknown until 1606 and unexplored until well into the 18th century? Or how large parts of Africa and South America remained unexplored until the late 18th or early 19th century? Or how New Zealand remained completely unknown to mankind (not unknown by Europeans but completely unknown by humans) until the 13th century? Or how European and Far Eastern civilizations managed to avoid direct contact until the 13th century? $\endgroup$ – AlexP Apr 19 '17 at 10:48
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Absolutely right! Especially if the civilized world includes Europe and China. Africa, of course, had extremely difficult terrain which made penetrating its interior hard. Also, Antarctica remained unexplored & undiscovered until the early 19th century (first sighted in 1820 by a Russian expedition) & in 1895 the first landing there by Norwegians. $\endgroup$ – a4android Apr 19 '17 at 10:57
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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding, NinetailedShinigami, it's a pity your first question is already covered by real history. The good news is you need to do historical research to establish the world you want to build. Have fun here! $\endgroup$ – a4android Apr 19 '17 at 11:00
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    $\begingroup$ You know that summit of Olympus was finally reached in 1913? Because for the few thousands years people didn't want to go for a spring walk on a top of 2,918 metres high mountain. $\endgroup$ – SZCZERZO KŁY Apr 19 '17 at 11:48
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP: Not exactly true about European & Far Eastern civilizations. There was a good bit of trade, and the Romans (and Greeks before them) had maps of routes as far east as Sri Lanka. It's certainly possible that adventurous merchants went further, but they would have kept their journeys private for trade advantage. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Apr 19 '17 at 17:44

17 Answers 17

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People do discover it. They just never report back.

It's one thing to sail all the way to a new continent. It's quite another to land there, chart the territory, and then sail back home again to tell people what you've found. Perhaps the coastal waters are exceedingly treacherous and the ships keep getting dashed to pieces. Perhaps that continent is inhabited by deadly predators that kill anyone who lands there. Perhaps the locals view the explorers as "invaders" or "demons" or whatever, and kill them on sight. Alternately, maybe it's such a wonderful place (at least on the surface) that none of the explorers ever want to go back home.

Whatever the reason, nobody has ever returned from that place to be able to tell other people that it exists. From a world-building perspective, I like this idea better than just "it's really remote", because it opens up so many other possibilities. For example, it could have spawned in-universe myths or legends about this region that people sail to, never to return, rather like the Bermuda Triangle.

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    $\begingroup$ Another great way to kill people on sight: diseases or parasites - or parasite-borne diseases. Those that the local folk is immune against, but the colonists are not. Bonus points if being susceptible to the disease is viewed as a "kill on sight if you want to score points for the afterlife" mark from gods by the local tribe. $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Apr 19 '17 at 18:12
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    $\begingroup$ @JanDvorak "or disease-borne parasites" - Lol for some reason I thought this was coming next. $\endgroup$ – jlaverde Apr 19 '17 at 20:03
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    $\begingroup$ For an example see Dishonored's Pandyssia continent: it represents the vast majority of the world's landmass and yet is largely unexplored because people going there end up killed by local plants and animals (including diseases and parasites as in Dvorak's comment). Those who don't generaly go mad quickly for unexplained (yet) reasons. $\endgroup$ – Autar Apr 20 '17 at 9:42
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    $\begingroup$ This reminds me of the story of Vandino and Ugolino Vivaldi. They set off to find a sea route to India by sailing around Africa in 1291. After passing Gibraltar they were never heard from again $\endgroup$ – jgosar Apr 20 '17 at 11:33
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    $\begingroup$ "Perhaps the locals view the explorers as "invaders" or "demons" or whatever, and kill them on sight." BEHOLD: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Sentinel_Island $\endgroup$ – Liam Apr 21 '17 at 15:35
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Looking at Europe, Siberia, and East Asia might be a good precedent or model.

  • Introduce an inhospitable mountain chain or two.
  • After those mountains there will be swamps, insects, more swamps, taiga, and swamps. People live there, but they don't have much to trade beyond the occasional pelt, gold nugget, or piece of amber.
  • Living in those swamps requires the right survival skills -- how to find potable water, how to prevent food and other supplies from rotting, etc.

Now dial this up. The mountains are not like the Urals, they're like the Himalayas. The swamps are not like the West Siberian Plain, they're more like a jungle.

This will not prevent all travel, but it will turn the land at the other end of the continent into a mythical "here there be dragons."

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    $\begingroup$ Or jungles. Or deserts. Or any region that makes travel difficult or impossible. $\endgroup$ – CaM Apr 19 '17 at 17:44
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    $\begingroup$ Also don't include navigable rivers $\endgroup$ – Justin Ohms Apr 19 '17 at 20:39
  • $\begingroup$ You can also introduce hostile sea, in addition to mountain ranges. $\endgroup$ – Vylix Apr 20 '17 at 1:34
  • $\begingroup$ Long mountain range. In the north pack ice which does not allow travel by foot, but squelches every ship trying to pass it, combined with polar lows, extremely strong storms. In the south we have calms, zones without any wind whatsoever, but much seaweed. The mountain range is long enough to prevent passage by rowing. $\endgroup$ – Thorsten S. Apr 21 '17 at 10:53
  • $\begingroup$ Or a volcano chain $\endgroup$ – er-han Apr 21 '17 at 11:05
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It is far away

Quite simply, in both Europe and China of 1200 AD there was essentially zero knowledge of the other civilization. The Chinese didn't know about Europeans or European crops/trees/animals, and the Europeans didn't know about the Chinese and their crops/trees/animals. So while there was some exchange of crops and technology though nomadic middlemen, in general this fits the bill, exactly.

If you would like to make them even more isolated, you can remove the middle men. If the Indian subcontinent dissapeared, then Europe and China would know even less of each other. If you removed the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers and the city states of central Asia, then even technology and crops might mot have passed from one to the other.

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There are some very fun answers here already. One even got accepted as the correct answer by OP. Seem to be forgetting the major one, though.

It's cold

Italy is lovely. Beautiful summers, lovely winters, enough farmland to sustain urban settlements and enough coastline to host maritime republics. By around 1300, you had portolan charts starting to get so detailed and accurate that they look like someone carefully tracing a GPS plot.

c. 1330

Sure, you can have swamps or desert but if there's anything useful in them people will have a line going across directly to it and know all about it. Meanwhile, just make things a little chilly and it takes until 1430 to get this map of Scandinavia

Nancy MS 354

and it's not until 1540 that you get something as still-inaccurate as this

Münster Cosmographia

We were still debating whether the Norse had made it to Greenland and North America into the 20th century and the two largest countries in the modern world are barren arctic wastelands because no one wants to go anywhere really cold or talk about it once they get back. It's gotten a little better recently with thermal fleeces, industrial-strength insulation, &c. but if you want real-world reasons for people not to explore or know much about a place, make it arctic.

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    $\begingroup$ I selected the answer as the best one not because it is the best but because it suits my needs the most and it fits the picture where I intend to introduce the inhabitants of the unexplored section. $\endgroup$ – Ninetailed Shinigami Apr 21 '17 at 17:54
  • $\begingroup$ But your concept of the cold is most realistic and it will be incorporated into the story at a much deeper level along with the difficulties mentioned in the selected answer! $\endgroup$ – Ninetailed Shinigami Apr 21 '17 at 17:56
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    $\begingroup$ @NinetailedShinigami Thanks for the explanation and kind words. Good luck with your story! $\endgroup$ – lly Apr 21 '17 at 21:08
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There are many examples of this in our history. Taking medieval times to be 5th-15th century we only have to look at the deluge of new discoveries which came after that to see that there was much which lay out of our reach before that.

There are many similarities between these new discoveries but in general they are separated by something too costly to traverse, an ocean, a desert or sometimes they're just a small island far from anything large and the probability of coming across it is just too small.

To build your world I would suggest incorporating any one of these into your world to separate your one civilisation from the rest.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure that really works as stated for a part of a continent, though... $\endgroup$ – a CVn Apr 20 '17 at 5:21
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    $\begingroup$ Depends on your definition of continent, we have plenty of examples where something isn't connected by land but is part of the same continent. However the desert example works where land does connect them $\endgroup$ – Lio Elbammalf Apr 20 '17 at 5:47
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Fear. It's a powerful motivator and a great tool to control the masses.

Before maps and navigation aids, it was fear that stopped people in ships from sailing beyond the horizon away from the shore. It was the fear of falling off the edge of the planet that kept them hugging the coasts.

Fear of spirits, demons and gods can keep people off a section of land. Fear of a people, imagined or not, that attack everyone that enters the land can keep that land unexplored. Fear that there are no riches in a land, only an endless landscape of fire and brimstone. That place? That place we don't go? In that place, there be dragons.

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  • $\begingroup$ Not quite. It's a more practical fear, of shipwreck or becoming lost, rather than fear of literally falling off the world, that kept most ships close to shore. $\endgroup$ – Guy F-W Apr 21 '17 at 15:04
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    $\begingroup$ Wow! I never thought of fear in this light! It could act as a further psychological deterrent in the exploration along side all the physical ones! But political fear and the fear of persecution( maybe religious) , according to me, will be more suited to it. $\endgroup$ – Ninetailed Shinigami Apr 21 '17 at 18:01
  • $\begingroup$ I was going to mention fear as well. It reminds me of those sea dragons you see drawn on old maps. Who wants to risk running into one of those monsters? $\endgroup$ – magnetar Apr 27 '17 at 18:24
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Africa proved very difficult for Europeans to explore for a variety of reasons. The presence of the Sahara Desert across the northern expanse discouraged exploration by land - the harsh environment presented more danger than most were willing to brave, considering there was a good chance you wouldn't find anything except miles of featureless, inhospitable sand. Sailing down the coast of Africa was dangerous because returning was very difficult - the shape of the continent meant that ships that rounded the edge of western Africa would be constantly going against the wind on the return journey, and until ships were developed that could tack into the wind there was a very real fear that any ship attempting the journey would be unable to return. The political situation of the time made trying to travel through Arabia difficult for Europeans. And as others have pointed out, those who managed to make the journey would also have to avoid disease, unfamiliar predators, and other dangers long enough to return.

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    $\begingroup$ Possibly not helped by the (fictitious) Mountains of Kong that for most of the 19th were thought to impose an impassable barrier between the coast and interior of Western Africa. $\endgroup$ – TripeHound Apr 21 '17 at 7:20
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Freaking lazy.

I propose your civilized folks could discover these places, if they would get off their asses and go. Or hire someone else to. You can depict a degenerate, decadent and pampered civilization. They have everything they want and have no particular desire to find anything more or different, especially if it involves discomfort or effort.

Someone has to do the work, though. If your upper class is as described and the lower class is thoroughly beat down, illiterate serfs, there is no middle group of scrappers and self-made men that can give rise to a Columbus or Magellan. That leaves the military and is is no stretch to posit a hidebound and tradition-minded military uninterested in anything new.

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    $\begingroup$ Not exactly lazy, but the Chinese went all the way to Africa, collected animals, yet didn't bother to return. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_exploration $\endgroup$ – apaul Apr 19 '17 at 20:30
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps the upper class could send out lower class scouts. Then, without anyone over their head the lower class scouts may choose to never return and be their own boss in the new land. $\endgroup$ – magnetar Apr 27 '17 at 18:26
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Plague.

For a long time nobody who went there ever came back. Then someone did come back. Dying. And started a plague that killed half the town they came back to. Nobody goes there any more. People suspected of returning from illegal trips are shot on sight, and wide rings burned around their bodies.

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Two more types of barrier that haven't been mentioned:

  • Super murderous inhabitants (plant or animal) surrounding the area. A forest full of poisonous plants, active predators and maybe even violent natives could easily deter exploration. This was basically the status of parts of the Amazon until quite recently.

  • Surround Fields of lava. Perhaps such an event could surround a habitable region.

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  • $\begingroup$ Oh, yes, because lava pits are a great thing to have handy. (Warning: TV Tropes link.) $\endgroup$ – a CVn Apr 20 '17 at 5:23
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Even today there are parts of the world that remain unexplored by 'civilised' peoples, because we've conceded that others have ownership of these areas. If these others consider the area holy, no man will ever tread there.

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Some ideas...

  • Expanding on the various people that mentioned plague. It's easy to say "everyone that went there died" but that's actually not a useful deterrent because people are dumb and keep trying anyway. Here's a better idea: let's say you have an area that people have visited but got sick but people got better if they left the area. That's easily tested and consistent. People go, they all get sick, they leave, they get better. Send some prisoners and a rotating set of guards, everyone gets sick, rotating guards survive, prisoners don't. Rinse and repeat in a few areas and find it's the same.

    Works best when you have a limited amount of access or an isolated continent, but you can work it on a single continent by environment trickery. Think mosquitos but a bit less picky and a lot more lethal... pathogen spread by something that is very common, is about the size of a mite, but can only survive in that climate. Have it not be too fussy about hosts and the surviving fauna are immune. There's enough variables to play with to get a suitable deterrent.

  • Rocks. No, really, have a large chunk of continental crust made up of a ridiculously toxic material. Let's say that some weird event during the formation of the planet resulted in a wide area that was so contaminated with radioactive isotope bearing rocks that anyone spending any amount of time in that area would suffer radiation poisoning. We know from experience that plants and even some lower complexity species can survive in these environments just fine but a lot of larger creatures struggle or just die off. You can write it off as a stellar fragment, an earlier civilisation having a nuclear war, or something silly like a narrow cross section gamma ray burst early in formation.

  • Tectonics. Have an area that suffered so badly from volcanic activity and earthquakes that previous generations decided it wasn't worth spending time there... maybe the knowledge that the area was bad was passed down but the reason and any real exploration results have been lost.

The first and third are adaptions of ideas from Pern. Fun series with a similar obstacle.

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Religion

The people could have a religion which says that it is forbidden to walk in this lands, maybe because they are the holy land of their god and no one should ever walk there. This would be a good option if this area is rich on ressources.

Or the complete opposite. It's an harsh land, so this is the land where the devils and demons life, and everyone which goes there will die and worship demons.

Both options give one good thing, everyone which was there and tells about it is a heretic and traitor and will be executed. And no one will believe what they say, because they have violated the holy laws of their religion.

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Perhaps a labor shortage has made an expedition not worth the money.

The great plague killed 19 out of every 20 people. They were referred to as "The lucky ones". Shipbuilders were hit the hardest. We lost most of our trade fleet because of foreign powers burning infected vessels. It has been over 150 years. Our population has not recovered. We'd like to send a ship to investigate that continent we found out about, but we can't spare the people to make a crew, spare the shipbuilders to make a vessel that's capable of such a long voyage, or spare the people to prepare for such a long voyage. It would take several people we can't afford just to make a 3 year supply of fishnets!

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A technological society doesn't want to be discovered

While the main society is inching into their Renaissance, embracing technology and thinking they are the pinnacle of civilization....

... in fact, the people on that faraway continent are centuries ahead of them - with radar, thermal imaging, satellites and maritime patrol aircraft. And the Aircraft Society uses these capabilities to intercept 100% of Medieval Society explorers. The medieval explorers have no ability to hide, and it wouldn't even occur to them to try.

Who knows, perhaps religion has everything to do with it. It doesn't need to be Aircraft Society's.

How they deal with explorers

Aircraft Society either integrates explorers into their society, interns, imprisons, or kills them, or perhaps some combination thereof depending on circumstances. Integration is no small motivation to an explorer's mind, it would be like being invited into Heaven itself.

They might operate an intelligence network within Medieval Society, either observing: collecting advance notice of most expeditions, perhaps pulling out explorers' families when that is negotiated. Or actively tampering with their development, e.g. buttressing religion, amplifying superstition, inciting persecution of technologists, and trying to keep them in the Middle Ages. Perhaps Aircraft Society is in the throes of its own enlightenment, changing how they manipulate Medieval Society.

Their motivation

Their motivation might be "Prime Directive" sort of non-interference. More likely it is self-serving.

Perhaps they see amazing art and culture arising from Medieval Society, and they don't want to corrupt it the way modern technology has corrupted so many formerly isolated societies.

Perhaps they feel Medieval Society is just not culturally ready for an influx of unearned technology and would horribly mishandle it to their own destruction.

Perhaps the Societies' differences are irreconcilable, and they are trying to forestall as long as possible what will definitely happen when Medieval Society discovers what uranium does.

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If the native Americans had killed Colombus on the spot, their civilization may live even today.

Also Montezuma could have killed Cortez many times, he didn't do until it was too late.

Antarctica wasn't found for a very long time, simply because it was cold and it was too far away. Thus, weather can be another reason.

If North America had been a small island, like New Zealand, around where is California now, Colombus probably would never have found it. It may have taken centuries until iron steam ships were to find it.

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    $\begingroup$ If they Native Americans had killed Columbus on the spot, they would have been massacred by the rest of Columbus' crew who would have hit the beach in steel armor. Then after an obligatory episode of looting and raping, one of the survivors would have caught smallpox and spread it, etc, etc, 90% of the continents would have died. And that's not even mentioning the next boat of conquistadors, what with Cabral finding Brazil by accident a decade later. No, the Native Americans were screwed. -1 $\endgroup$ – kingledion Apr 19 '17 at 19:55
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    $\begingroup$ @kingledion I highly doubt if they were enough to fight. They didn't had even water, and probably they were highly outnumbered by the natives. Only smallpox is not enough to exterminate a continent, it didn't exterminate even us (and, even we aren't protected against it). $\endgroup$ – Gray Sheep Apr 19 '17 at 22:49
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er... are you aware that during middle age, in fact, Europe and Asia were completely unaware of the existence of America and Oceania? That is the exact scenario you are describing. And also most of Africa was unexplored (from the European point of view).

As far as we're concerned, in a slightly alternative world, in the Americas there could have been civilization at least as advanced as in Europe, and the two civilizations would have had no contact with each other.

So, in a middle age scenario, that is very likely to happen. Actually, it has in fact happened. Having an ocean in the middle, is a perfectly valid reason.

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