I am designing a world where humans have somehow developed or have been put onto a planet in a primitive state. This world has only been habitable for about ten thousand years and therefore only has the most basic of life, including a few sea animals and slug/worm creatures that can be eaten safely.

Since this world has only had life for ten thousand years, and advanced life for about a thousand (working at an increased evolutionary rate due to higher radiation to cause mutation which supports this increased development) there are no fossil fuels, only a range of semi-tree-like plants scattered near the coasts along with huge inland grasslands (actually more like moss-lands) and deserts.

My question is this: How would human culture and civilization have varied without access to fossil fuels? In particular, how would the development of technology and the growth of population be different without fossil fuels?

I would also like to know how evolution might affect these people over a period of time under these circumstances to make them conquer this world. For the record the Water to Land ratio is about 55/45 if that would make any considerable difference.

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    $\begingroup$ Can they burn the plants? Is there metal? If so they don't really need to hit that 'no fossil fuels' wall for thousands of years. $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    Feb 4, 2015 at 20:53
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    $\begingroup$ Even with increased mutation and evolutionary pressure, ten thousand years is a really short time for plants and animals to evolve. $\endgroup$
    – KSmarts
    Feb 4, 2015 at 20:57
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    $\begingroup$ Repeat of @KSmarts - Life took around 2 billion years on earth to make the jump to multi-cellular...10k years is incredibly short for multi-cellular life to appear, let alone develop a digestive system even if it is just a slug. If normal evolutionary rates was a car driving @ 50km/h on a side road, increased evolutionary rates would be a speeding car @200km/h on the highway. You've got the evolutionary car approaching the speed of light here (in the range of a few million times faster). You can make the world older and not have oil reserves...no plate tectonics on the world? $\endgroup$
    – Twelfth
    Feb 4, 2015 at 21:04
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    $\begingroup$ If aliens are putting people on this planet, why not just have the aliens seed all of the life at the complexity they want? If your planet is developing naturally, there will probably be fossil fuels before there are terrestrial animals, but aliens could choose to seed a planet with slugs as the only life form. $\endgroup$
    – ckersch
    Feb 4, 2015 at 21:19
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    $\begingroup$ @DustinJackson If you have aliens seeding the human life on this planet, why not the rest of the life as well? Then you wouldn't have to worry about the appropriate timescale. Or you could just be vague and call life on the planet "young". In either case, you want people to stop focusing on the age of the planet, and start answering your actual question. $\endgroup$
    – KSmarts
    Feb 4, 2015 at 21:19

5 Answers 5


First off, you need to understand the time scales involved with evolution.

On Earth, life first evolved around 3.6 billion years ago. It then took 3 billion years before simple animals evolved. It then took an additional 50 million years before bilateria evolved (animals with a front and a back, like a slug). It then took an additional 75 million years before land plants evolved.

So, step one in the reality check is 10,000 years is way, way too short of a time period for life to evolve, even if it could be massively accelerated. However, an accelerated rate of mutation wouldn't necessarily have done that.

Today, there are all sorts of things that cause mutation. And single-celled organisms have a really high rate of mutation. But a key part of our initial evolution is that we evolved to harden ourselves against high rates of mutation to preserve our DNA, so that our complex multicellular bodies wouldn't destroy itself.

To answer your question directly, we'd die. And for a lot of reasons.

First, we'd suffocate. It took 2.5 billion years for earth to start getting its oxygen coat. With such simple life forms, there'd likely be no algae producing oxygen, and so we'd have nothing to breath. At best, there'd be some oxygen, but not enough to create enough ozone, so we'd die from radiation poisoning.

Then, we'd starve. If the only extent life was small sea slugs, then humans would quickly die. We require a complex diet of vitamins and nutrients, and we get that from a combination of plant and animal matter. Sea slugs wouldn't provide that. At best, the only plant life at this stage would be ferns or similar, and that wouldn't be able to give us the necessary nutrition.

And finally, we'd be killed by the elements. Even if we had enough food to eat, we probably wouldn't survive due to weather. Early humans required fur to protect themselves from the elements. Without the shelter of fur, much less trees or other large plants, our ability to survive would be incredibly limited. At best, we'd be trapped in a very specific part of the globe.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for good planetology, and for drawing our attention to the immense time scales involved. Planetary time is deep time. $\endgroup$ Feb 5, 2015 at 12:38
  • $\begingroup$ Grasses are the wrong plants to have in this scenario. Grasses were the last major plant group to appear, well after things like ferns, flowers, trees, etc $\endgroup$
    – seumasmac
    Oct 2, 2015 at 1:48

It is possible to have a world with a long evolutionary history without fossil fuels:

  1. Place your humans there at the beginning of the first fossil-fuel-accumulation era, so that any fossil fuels that will accumulate will do so after the humans have had their day, so to speak. As the oldest coal deposits on Earth were laid down in the Carboniferous era, starting your scenario about that time would eliminate this fossil fuel.

  2. Have a world with little or no plate tectonics so that fossil fuels will not accumulate. The best you'd get in the way of fossil fuels in this situation is peat bogs. In order to have the necessary conditions, an earth-size & mass world would have to have a smaller moon, a more distant moon, and/or no moon at all, and/or the world itself would have to be smaller, in order to reduce tectonic activity.

The main problem with the rapid evolution scenario posited is that the radiation levels required would probably be very dangerous or lethal to humans; any local life forms would have evolved to be at least somewhat radiation-tolerant.

Anyway, assuming an earth-like world with established life, but no reserves of fossil fuels, the most logical consequence would be that high-carbon organisms - such as trees - would be harvested and cultivated as a fuel source, much as is the case here today.

One of the main consequences is that liquid fuels such as oil would be scarcer from the outset. It would be possible to have such fuels, but they would probably be of animal or vegetable origin. Vegetable-based fuels could include alcohol or heavier oils for spark-ignited or diesel engines respectively (Old vegetable oil from fish & chip shops can be filtered and used as diesel fuel).

The evolution of technology may not differ much at all. Steam engines can run on timber or charcoal, and technology can progress from there. The main difference is that carbon sinks other than peat bogs will not have accumulated significant carbon, so a more conservative approach to fuel usage will have to be instituted from the outset.

Peat bogs accumulate useable fuel at a rate of at most a few millimetres per year. This is not technically a fossil fuel, but a slow-renewable fuel. The rate of peat deposition is lower than the potential rate of its use. However, this would likely be the only significant source of geological fuel deposits available.

  • $\begingroup$ Good answer and gives lot to think about while explaining alternatives. $\endgroup$
    – Jax
    Feb 5, 2015 at 15:35

Some points to consider:

1) If life is relatively new on your world, you won't have much in the way of iron ores, as most of those were produced by microbial activity: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_ore

2) If you don't have plate tectonics or vulcanism, you're likely not to have much in the way of other ore deposits, as most of those were formed by hydrothermal or magmatic processes: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ore_genesis

  • $\begingroup$ +1 for good geology, with good applicability to the prospects (so to speak) for metallurgical technologies. $\endgroup$ Feb 5, 2015 at 12:59
  • $\begingroup$ Not sure how anyone can add "+1 for good geology" by suggesting that iron ores were produced by microbial activity. But I guess such "knowledge" is normal on this forum. $\endgroup$ May 18, 2015 at 14:08
  • $\begingroup$ @Peter Masiar : See e.g. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banded_iron_formation $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    May 31, 2015 at 21:28

Fossil fuels are not required. If you have enough forests, you can make charcoal from wood - here is old way. Charcoal allows for metallurgy, (slower) industrial revolution and steam power. Productivity would be increasing bit slower and growth would not be as steep, but entirely doable.

According to Wikipedia:

The original fuel for forge fires was charcoal. Coal did not begin to replace charcoal until the forests of first Britain (during the AD 17th century), and then the eastern United States of America (during the 19th century) were largely depleted. Coal can be an inferior fuel for blacksmithing, because much of the world's coal is contaminated with sulfur. Sulfur contamination of iron and steel make them "red short", so that at red heat they become "crumbly" instead of "plastic". Coal sold and purchased for blacksmithing should be largely free of sulfur.

So coal is good for steam power but not for metallurgy.

You would not have trains and cars, population mobility would be slower (and so will be progress). You would have canals instead of railroads - think Erie Canal, Grand Canal of China and Canals of UK. Canals would go everywhere like railroad goes now. Areas with little river water would be much harder to cross - only on roads, on animal-powered vehicles. Or caravans.

Metal would be much more expensive, wood (and bamboo if you can have it) used more often. Water mills and wind-powered mills would be used much longer. bamboo is strong and grows fast - ideal crop for your settings. Bamboo bicycle was made 100 years ago.

Metal sheets can be also replaced by waterproofed cardboard in many use cases.

Wood can be made rather strong. H4 Spruce Goose is aircraft with largest ever wingspan, size similar to Boeing 747 and Airbus 380 (biggest widebody jet airliners) made mostly from wood (birch plywood and resin).

Another good source of oil to start your industrialization would be whale oil.

Later you can get wind power and solar power.

As your civilization advances, they can learn genetic engineering and engineer bacteria which produce oil from wood chips. That can be used as diesel fuel and even (as kerosene) for rocketry.

Progress is entirely possible without fossil fuels - it would be just a bit (maybe quite a bit) slower start.

One thing which requires dense fuel is aviation. So possibly no planes until you can generate diesel fuel from algae. So less travel, less global turism, less global pandemics.

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    $\begingroup$ Not just a slower start. One of the very important starters of the industrial revolution was the availability of relatively cheap fuel. Europe was covered with industrial forests long before then - it wasn't enough to fuel the industrial revolution. Steam power only began to be important because it was cheap - in the fosil-less world, it would be everything but. Mines take a lot of wood to produce anything even if you don't use it for steam engines - and pumping out the water is much harder without steam pumps. Progress would be much slower, not just a bit slower :) $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    May 18, 2015 at 8:15
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    $\begingroup$ I think you are underestimating the importance of coal in sustaining industrialisation, and overestimating how much charcoal / whale they could rely upon before they'd manage to exhaust them. I don't know the figures, but I'd bet that the amount of wood they'd need to burn to provide an equivalent amount of energy that coal provided (and then oil) would be impractical. $\endgroup$
    – user20787
    Jun 8, 2016 at 15:59
  • $\begingroup$ Question was about possibility, not if it is practical. I agree what coal is more practical than charcoal. Are you trying to suggest that industrial revolution is 100% impossible without coal? I claim that progress would be much slower, but there is no reason for progress to stop completely. $\endgroup$ Jun 8, 2016 at 16:05
  • $\begingroup$ @PeterMasiar The industrial revolution required a huge amount of energy, and even with coal and oil Britain had felled almost all of its forest by 1919, when the Forestry Commission had to be established. And that's after centuries of people chopping down wood for farmland and construction. You'd need such an enormous amount of wood or whale to compensate for a lack of coal and oil; it'd restrict the size of industry. It might not even be cost effective, compared to coal mining. Which makes me doubt industrialisation would happen, or for long enough before all the trees are gone. $\endgroup$
    – user20787
    Jun 9, 2016 at 15:52
  • $\begingroup$ You can have oil from whales, palms. Steam engines can work on wood. Commercial ships can sail. Sure, population density would be less. Travel would be more limited. Possibly no planes. But progress (advancement of technology) would not be stopped, only slowed down. $\endgroup$ Jun 9, 2016 at 21:05

Others are suggesting, quite sensibly, that you'd need humans to exist prior to fossil fuels being generated, or on a world which geologically doesn't allow this to happen. However, it has also been mentioned that the time scales you'd initially planned are completely unreasonable given how long it has taken for humans to evolve; and perhaps more importantly the specific environmental circumstances which allowed them to evolve at all, which would be lacking in such a primeval past.

However, I have an alternative solution. At one point I read the notion that if humanity depletes the world of fossil fuels now, future generations will not be able to industrialise again given a cataclysmic event which would send them back to the stone age. That is a possibility; you don't set this in the distant past, you set it in the distant future after a number of catastrophes which wiped out human technology after we depleted all the fossil fuels.

In this case a few things are worth noting: most importantly humans won't be able to industrialise again, because even if they can make charcoal by burning trees, or cut peat, it simply won't exist in the quantities to provide something similar to what we have been fortunate enough to enjoy. This means that even if a minority of engineers manage to emerge who tinker about and develop technology, they won't exist in the numbers required to propagate or extend this knowledge much, or quickly. No coal, no oil. You'd have to rely on horses and people to power things. So people can't really move very far or fast and you probably will never see globalisation either. The humans could conceivably develop the scientific method and know a lot about the world, but that's not to say they could do much about it. The economy will always be agrarian; the masses are to harvest the farmland. So at best you have a minority of noble scientists or noble engineers who play about with clockwork devices.

With regards to population: if I recall correctly the human population of the world was pretty stable prior to industrialisation; minus things like the black death. So you'd see the typical situation, of large families because half the children die from disease, or maybe everyone's starving because even if they learn how to avoid disease they can't achieve industrial era food production.

Worst case scenario is that the human population remains stubbornly high, and they completely exhaust their resources by using trees to make charcoal to industrialise, so the whole world begins to look a lot like Easter Island is now; devoid of trees. Which would probably help to make their environment all the more alien and depressing than it is now. Which again will push society technologically backwards further still and the world would support a smaller population still (no trees you get issues like soil erosion which will reduce available farmland, and reduce the quality of what farmland is left). I can't see how they'd manage to create something like the computer you're using now. It requires a huge amount of technology and engineering prior, which could not be supported without widespread fossil fuels.


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