I'm trying to come up with a history for a planet that's more-or-less Earth-like that was colonized by a small group of humans ~1000 years ago.

Human civilization on this planet has an understanding of chemistry/physics similar to our own, having originally arrived from Earth, and has a population ranging from ~2000-~300000 people between colonization and 'now'. They lost access to most of their technology very soon after landing, but were able to preserve most of their knowledge with books and other records, and by 'current' day, have access to most technologies we do that don't rely on electricity/metal, such as glass-working, woodworking (with a native equivalent of wood), tanning (with a native equivalent of skin), farming, masonry, fiber-working for fabric, thread, and paper, (using native equivalents) etc...

However, this civilization should not have advanced metalworking or electronic technology. Scraps of salvaged metal from their ship, as well as small natural surface deposits/meteorites/etc. are sufficient that metal items exist, but the civilization should not have put any effort towards developing any kind of mining industry, specifically for practical reasons.

I'm not interested in psychological or cultural reasons why they might not do so (as I have an established culture more or less developed), but specifically what geological/other physical factors could conspire to make mining impractical without a powerful psychological or cultural drive to embrace it.

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    $\begingroup$ Because I don't know enough about how metals are mined, I'm going to 'answer' in the comments. I'd say modern day mining is pretty difficult. We currently use heavy machinery and explosives to mine some metals. Despite that the bronze era was quite a long time ago, so I'd make the planet, or at least the area, mineral-poor. You might do some research on how each metal is actually mined and see if it makes sense that these deposits are for some reason deeper on your planet. Or maybe the areas where they are easiest to mine are hardest to access (swamps or deserts in the way, etc.) $\endgroup$ – ozone Jun 1 '17 at 21:22
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  • $\begingroup$ I wanted to suggest a small-ish geological factors like earthquakes but the fact that they haven't moved or expanded away from that area in a 1000 years seems illogical. $\endgroup$ – Necessity Jun 2 '17 at 0:03
  • $\begingroup$ what technological level are you expect for now? Are they fall back to mediveal or 19th century? Our technological level? Something better than today? $\endgroup$ – ADS Jun 2 '17 at 6:59
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    $\begingroup$ "Small surface depots". They should be enough for centuries of relatively advanced steel industry if the planet is similar to earth. Also how do you even find a mine for metals? This would simply not be possible for your colonists unless they know a LOT about the geology of the planet, e.g., other mining attempts and so on. This is a really complex field, I would advice you to speak with a geologist about it if you ever have a chance - truly fascinating. Do not worry about this in the slightest. You simply do not need it for so few people. $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Jun 2 '17 at 11:19

10 Answers 10


The planet that the colonists inhabit has few woody plants, and most of them are ill suited for charcoal burning (though fine for routine carpentry). It also never had any planetary events that produced deposits of coal or oil. As a result, the colonists can neither extract fuel from the ground nor reliably burn charcoal from wood in sufficient quantities to fuel any advanced smelting processes.

The planet itself has plenty of metal deposits, and the atmosphere of the planet is comfortably similar to Earth's since other photosynthetic lifeforms make up for the missing trees.

Without charcoal or coal, the colonists' metallurgy is limited to hammering soft metals that can be found in their native form, like copper, silver, gold, tin, and lead. They can burn small quantities of wood, straw, and other plants to induce metallurgical roasting, but they aren't able to extract iron from ore, smelt alloys like bronze, or forge steel, though they might have small quantities of meteoric iron.

This lack of advanced metallurgy has a cascading effect, such that they cannot mass produce copper for wires, let alone effectively harness solar or nuclear energy.

The inhabitants instead harness wind and water energy for many major projects, including using water for hydraulic mining to retrieve soft metals like lead, gold, tin, and copper. Froth flotation is also used to increase their available supply of copper and lead.

  • $\begingroup$ This is an excellent answer! Maximal effect with minimal change! As it happens, the lack of coal/oil exactly fits in with my plans for the planet (as it needs to be fairly young, no time for mass extinctions etc.) and the links are a great starting point for more detailed research. $\endgroup$ – P... Jun 2 '17 at 17:36
  • $\begingroup$ The only thing I struggle with is how glass-making could proceed as usual. Fusing glass from sand requires some fantastic temperatures that you can't obtain by merely burning wood. I could see some enterprising colonists attempting to build giant mirrors out of hammered copper in order to focus solar rays for heating; the Odeillo solar furnace can easily reach the temperatures required for glassmaking. But such an approach might be too unreliable, impractical, or dangerous for most major industries. $\endgroup$ – Thriggle Jun 5 '17 at 16:33
  • $\begingroup$ I'm going to go ahead and accept this answer, since the links for further research and the basic idea were both very helpful for my specific case, but all the answers I've gotten have been pretty excellent. $\endgroup$ – P... Jun 8 '17 at 19:19
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the thoughtful question! As a timely coincidence, the newly opened Acosta deep coal mine in Pennsylvania is specifically unearthing metallurgical coal, underscoring that even though modern technology has provided alternative power sources that make coal obsolete for electricity, coal and petroleum-derived coke is still an integral component necessary for modern metal working. $\endgroup$ – Thriggle Jun 8 '17 at 19:35

You could make this planet an ancient colony of some forgotten race, who disappeared thousands of years ago for some reason (disease, civil or galactic war, ascension to a higher plane of existence...).

Metal is generated from fusion of lighter elements in the core of giant stars ; the one we find in the planet's core and was brought to the crust through billions of years of geological activity. It only takes a few centuries for a civilization like ours to exhaust any mining resource accessible without tremendous effort.

In short, your colonists came to an already exhausted world, and mining the last remains of metal would be way too expensive to be of any utility, except for luxury products.

  • $\begingroup$ +1 because this explanation avoids all the problems mentioned in the answer of Brythan $\endgroup$ – Nicolai Jun 2 '17 at 6:51
  • $\begingroup$ Nice answer! I can't use this one directly (forgot to specify in the question, but humans have to have been the first visitors to the planet for complicated reasons) but would easily be the best choice were that not the case. $\endgroup$ – P... Jun 2 '17 at 16:52

The only reason that we have metal deposits on our planet is that we were near enough to a supernova to end up with metal deposits. If you put your star in a less densely occupied area of the galaxy, there may not have been many supernovae close enough. This could also help explain why there is no rescue or visits--it's just too far away.

Just locate your star in a place where there aren't many higher elements. Elements in the fourth period, like titanium and iron, are rare. Elements in the fifth and higher periods are virtually non-existent.

In order to feed a growing population, iron is necessary. We need iron for our blood. So most mining is directed at finding sufficient iron to fertilize the fields. Iron is also extracted from sewage and exsanguinated from corpses for the same reason. So population can be maintained without mining, but any mining is used to cover the expanding population.

Your world likely won't have a magnetic field as a result. This may cause issues of its own.

There may be other substances that humans need that would be rare. Iron was the one that came to mind quickest. Potassium and calcium are also fourth period, although before iron. Zinc is after iron.

Electricity could be difficult, as there are no fossil fuels on this world (too young), no fission (seventh period elements), and fusion is difficult without already having lots of power. Even solar photovoltaics might be difficult. Gallium Arsenide is made of fourth period elements that would be less common than iron.

This is not a new plot line. It seems to me that Anne McCaffrey used it in her Pern series. I'm sure there are other examples.

  • $\begingroup$ Some elements like I(53th in periodical elements) and Se(34th) are necessary for people. Since population has increased this elements should be in the planet. We get Iodine mostly from common food so it's unlikely to have a stock of chemical iodine and don't have it in a wild. Therefore iron as Fe(26) is also have to present. Supernova/star wich produced iodine and didn't iron is impossible $\endgroup$ – ADS Jun 2 '17 at 6:36
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    $\begingroup$ To be fair, the original Pern colonists were trying to escape modern life and intentionally didn't bring high technology with them. They did bring some, obviously, but it wasn't in a capacity of "we need to make more of this, but can't" but "we can't get there without it." So the original colonists eschewed high tech and with the next couple of generations they simply weren't aware of it having ever been a thing (heck, the colony ships are still in orbit). That said, I'm sure that Pern is not a "forgotten tech" plotline: it was dragons. It just happened to have a forgotten tech origin. $\endgroup$ – Draco18s no longer trusts SE Jun 2 '17 at 14:09
  • $\begingroup$ I didn't even think of Pern! That actually (minus the Luddite angle) is a pretty good description of the tech level I'm thinking of, discounting what dragons supplant of course. @Draco18s, If I remember right Pern started out ignoring the "forgotten tech" angle but came back to it later on after running out of pure dragon ideas, with them finding the spaceship and having a whole 'Wait, this stuff is evil! Kill it all!' vs 'No, we can use it to survive better and AIs are people!' conflict. $\endgroup$ – P... Jun 2 '17 at 16:59
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding the answer, it's a good one in general but I don't think I can use it directly due to the nutritional problems you and ADS brought up. While humans are the only spacefaring civilization to come across this planet, it does have native plant-like and animal-like life. $\endgroup$ – P... Jun 2 '17 at 17:11
  • $\begingroup$ @P... Pern is only a "forgotten tech" story if you read the books in setting-chronological-order. If you look at publication order the first book is Dragonflight, which is.... sixteenth chronologically and set in the "9th pass" somewhere about 2500 years after colonization. Red Star Rising / Dragonseye (roughly 250 years after landing, pub. 1996) is already far enough into the setting chronology as to be tech-less. I haven't read Dragonsblood (Todd) and the 1993 collection Chronicles of Pern: First Fall features the space ships (see the short story, Rescue Run). $\endgroup$ – Draco18s no longer trusts SE Jun 2 '17 at 17:35

There are many options that split on two big categories. I'll describe only metallurgy and mining but all of them could be easily adopted for electronics.

There is no need of metallurgy

The metals are not rare but there are some reasons why people don't need mining. Somewhere this is what you probably don't want (sociology/psihology reasons) so I focus on physics/history

  • They have technologies which made iron and/or aluminium unnecessary. From the spaceship library and with specifics of the planet it's just no need in iron and most of the metals. [This is the easiest way]
    • especially strong wood/leather and/or pure silicium abundance
    • a new material which just better. This material could come both from library or from the planet
  • Presence of pure metals is enough. Population so small and sources of metals (from spaceship, raw iron on surface) are so abudant that there is no need to build up mines and/or foundry. Maybe a small forge which is enough.
  • Alternative ways to obtain metals. People could get pure metals in a different way than ours
    • biological ways such bacteries extracting iron from ore. Again, this bacteries could be found in the colony or saved from spaceship
    • more handwaving
      • telecinesys could differentiate metal from ore
      • alien/spaceship artifact which refines ore to pure metal and could produce any alloy from components. For colonists it could be a ritual

Absence of something

Another options are opposite. Colonists had lack of something so they need in advanced metallurgy but can't get it. Many of them give you possibilities like small group has found its own country on opposite continent and they have all

  • Library incompletness. Colonists saved not all technology library. The re-invent some processes and have some kind of forge but they could't recover modern metallurgy and even electricity (lot of electricity needed for aluminium extraction)
  • Area of life is limited. 300,000 people is just a tiny country. Most probably they don't spread up for the whole planet but live in compact region. There is no obvious deposits of iron in this region and long expeditions are expansive and could lead to losses of people (or just people always need for something more important than journey with unpredicable results)
  • Fast iron degradation For some reason pure iron (and possibly other metals) disposes at very high speed. It sounds like handwaving but still possible as key world factor (see 'You’ll Never Go Home Again' from Clifford D.Simak)
    • Bacteries 'eats' iron
    • something in the the air leads to metal corrosion. People could protect from it but protection is too expansive.
  • $\begingroup$ Some good ideas here! I especially like the suggestion of corrosive or metallivorous microbes. The idea of increased corrosion is promising as well, as I have other reasons to want a slightly higher-than-Earth oxygen concentration in the air. $\endgroup$ – P... Jun 2 '17 at 17:25

I don't know if you would consider this reason "cultural", but a practical reason might be a limitation on the knowledge in your library. Mining might be impractical if lacking the interim knowledge (example - how and where to find ores, how to safely handle them/processes/byproducts, and even what they look like). This can be either because that knowledge was lost, or because on this planet the geological signposts are somewhat different - ie, some different trace mineral in this ore here, its a different color than expected, so didn't get identified... oops.

Modern metalworking knowledge often skips these steps - assuming equally modern detection, or sometimes pointing out historical deposits, neither of which would necessarily apply to a people on another planet with knowledge and no tech. When I've looked, there's a lot of bog-iron and copper nugget level work, that is, what one can easily find and recognize, and a lot of advanced processing and the underlying cause-and-effect, and the in-between is a little sparse - not least because it is pretty complicated stuff, tangled in with all the chemistry, dyes, medicines, and a lot of risks and dangers.

For the rest of the tech branches you mention, there's a fair amount of hobby-knowledge, and that and a bit of reverse-engineering may be enough to get them started - but hobby-level metal-working starts with processed metals and shapes it, or one builds a mechanical smelter and forge but works with purchased materials or already-identified ores. It's not nearly the same thing as walking out into the wild with nothing and finding ores, mining it with no tools, and processing the ores, managing to separate and name and safely work with chemical components and reactions, manage health risks from said processing, its byproducts, and its waste materials, and all the stuff that happens before we get to what we would consider raw materials.

The thing is, your library is going to be an enormous help - and an enormous hindrance. Yes, both. It will let them shortcut some parts of the discovery process, knowing the principles of what kinds of things work and how they would work - but a lot, a lot of the details are not gonna be right for this new planet. Knowing how the process is supposed to work, all that knowledge your people saved, will let people figure out ways around that difference - eventually.

So, hey, we need this chemistry reaction, we've got... umm... hardwood ash was used historically, but the wood-equivalent there may not have the chemistry that lets us make lye or potash, and still less might it map on to whether that wood-equivalent is harder or softer. And whatever they found for, say, soapmaking may not be the same thing for nixmatalizing grains (chemical processing), and may again not be suitable to use as a flux in metalworking.

Or to bounce off of Thriggle's suggestion of a lack of charcoal/coal/oil, if they have some but not enough, they may focus on that lack, and never experiment enough to realize that shelf-mushroom or this peat moss or the other kind of coral can be processed and used the same way - especially if they skip the exploration or experimentation where they might have found out in favor of what they already knew would work. And because of that, I don't think they'll be as far along with some subjects, like metalworking, than they might be in those subjects if they hadn't had anything.

What I'm trying to get at, here, is those missing steps will mean the knowledge isn't easily usable without a lot of work and experimentation. It will take a lot of time and work to recreate these processes. But if several branches have these processes half-filled out, then even if it takes lifetimes to fill out the rest, it will still be more productive to work in that than try and figure out the other processes where the pieces missing are all in the beginning and so one doesn't know how to start. So people will neglect those branches (like metalworking) far, far more than if they were figuring out everything from scratch, because working in those already known areas gets them, well, more bang for their buck.

Add in the time it takes to ensure basic survival, recover from whatever lost them their tech, to expand and support their population, to ensure a decent standard of living (important now, not so much historically, also takes time/effort), and rediscover multiple branches of technology up to current day levels - it is really not surprising some branches like advanced metalworking have fallen behind, even by quite a bit. Maybe they would catch up eventually, but that isn't so when your story is set.

I would imagine metalworking wasn't completely neglected, but it may lag far behind other branches. And one of the things advanced tech does, in whatever branch, is give more flexibility to its applications, including ways to work around problems - like finding alternate solutions to things that might have taken advanced metalworking for us - ie, we need this tool, originally it was metal but now ceramics or glass can work, or else needed metalworking as a prerequisite - ie, we need these chemicals, originally discovered when refining/mining metals but now we know what they are. That knowledge gives your people alternatives, and with alternatives metalworking becomes less critical, less urgent, with fewer people working on it, and so makes (much) less progress, overall, than the tech branches that are being leaned on to fill in.


Maybe the areas where this civilization could have machinery or equipment for mining are somehow radioactive, I mean you could mine a place but when you use that metal or mineral is so radioactive that if you make a car and drive it just for 1 mile you could have develop some illnes or disease from that radiation, so mining is just not practical to do so.

  • $\begingroup$ This is an interesting idea, but I don't think I could take it very far while keeping the rest of the planet believably inhabitable. I can't think of a reason why metal and radioactive material would cluster together without the whole planet's surface being unlivably radioactive. $\endgroup$ – P... Jun 2 '17 at 17:40
  • $\begingroup$ Its like in that movie Oblivion where there are places that are too much contaminated with radioactive material, even if you have some place you can mine you also need some place to live, to stand, to lie down, etc. $\endgroup$ – daniel avendaño Jun 6 '17 at 13:35

For science based I would go with the planet metal deposits being hidden under hard rocks that need special tools to being penetrated. Deposits near the surface were used to make more useful tools and weapons. After that they realize they cannot create mining equipment capable of breaking the crust without sacrificing current tools production or salvaging already used metal.

For the electronics I understand that they cannot have advanced one like we have but be somewhat able to create something like the one before 1940's. That is also connected to deposits. They can create lamps and so on but they lack off materials needed to create transistors or the materials on that planet are too hard to create.

For the regular normal explanations you have two choices:

  • religion - just like ham or fastening, the need to save metal (maybe first generation wanted to rebuild the ship) turned into making it not usable for anything else as it was sacred and was needed to sacrifice it into the "mouth of the earth" (known earlier as "landing site").
  • knowledge lost in time - just as we (as humanity) never really knew how Greek fire or Damascus steel was made we didn't pass this knowledge further and spreaded it out.

To anyone who say "but they had the books and records of things" I advise to take a book about anatomy from XVIII century. In it's original form so without updated language. Or read modern paper on semiconductors. It's not so easy.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the answer! It's already apparent that I need to more research into mining and geology, so I may be able to use your first suggestion. Unfortunately, I can't use your latter suggestions, as I specifically need practical and not cultural reasons. $\endgroup$ – P... Jun 2 '17 at 17:13

Maybe the core of the planet is denser, metals are far deeper underground with only rare occurances (such as the metorite strikes) depositing on the surface (maybe make the planet have a bunch of moons that have acted as "sweepers" of cosmic debris)

As they were 'marooned'and did not have large-scale digging tools they couldn't mine for the ore and thus as civilisation progressed the knowledge of the metals location deep underground reduced.

This opens a path to having sub-sections of the community aware that there is 'something' down there (or maybe guild/union structures who hoard the metallurgy secrets similar to the masons trying to hang on to the keystone principles)

  • $\begingroup$ This is actually an idea that I had before posting this question. I'm not sure though that something like this could actually happen. The closest thing in real life I can think about to this is the (probable) impact that created the moon in Earth's early history, but obviously plenty of metal didn't sink to the core of the Earth at that time. $\endgroup$ – P... Jun 2 '17 at 17:39
  • $\begingroup$ Greater spin of the core (which is metal) could mean a greater magnetic force on the planet while it formed, means before the crust cooled and water occurred that the metals were drawn inwards. A denser core could also mean a smaller planet than earth, but with near-earth gravity. $\endgroup$ – Slipoch Jun 3 '17 at 9:34
  • $\begingroup$ The lack of surface metals could also have only been discovered after the crash/loss of most of the knowledge thus making the actual reason unknown, hell use all of the reasons above as theories by different groups in the population. I agree with the poster below that the knowledge would be a double-edged sword, a help and a hinderance, and in this fashion it may even become a semi-religeous artifact. 'not to be taken literally' $\endgroup$ – Slipoch Jun 3 '17 at 9:41

To start metallurgy, you need need ore near to the surface. Metals are generally heavier than other rock, so the usual way of the ore getting there is by water bringing it up. For example, copper ore formed over millennia from magmatic water.

If your planet was terraformed from a dry state just before it was colonised, there would not be time for the geological processes to circulate it down and up again to bring the metals close enough to the surface to mine.


Option One, a very old world in orbit of an ancient red dwarf star is going to have very little metal to mine and even less of it is likely to be on the surface. Option Two, a geologically inactive world won't have metal compound concentrates on the surface, on Earth most ores are concentrated in the crust by the action of geothermal fluids. Option Three, silicate dominated geochemistry, silicates are more chemically and thermally stable than the oxides and sulfates that we use as ore as such they make terrible ores. Option Four, contamination, relatively high concentrations of a number of elements would make many of the ores we take for granted impossible to use, Titanium, Tungsten and Beryllium come to mind as key contaminates that would raise smelting temperatures beyond the range of carbon fueled smelters.


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