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If you want to tell a story of a lonely island on earth, isolated from the rest of the civilization, how many years do you have to go back to be realistic?

I think about a story about 350 people who survive a shipwreck. It is very important for the story that they have to stay on that island for the rest of their lives, because nobody will find them.

I do not know when some major trading routes where established between Europe and other continents. It is very important for the story that frequently used trade routes used by ships were either not existent or far away from the island.

@kingledion: Thanks for your answer. Do you think we have to go back that far. Would be for example 1710 not sufficient? I think it is easier for me to tell a story that is not that far back, because the life is a bit more similar than our live today.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding Wolfgang! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$
    – Secespitus
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 19:39
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    $\begingroup$ Assuming that someone offers up an island with a relatively recent absence of human life, you will actually want to travel back further than the arrival of its first inhabitants. To know how much further, we need to know how much time your story will cover... months, years or generations? $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 19:56
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    $\begingroup$ You don't have to go back in time at all. There's an island in the Indian Ocean where the natives kill anyone from outside who lands there. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 20:52
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    $\begingroup$ Why do you need to go back in time to find an isolated island? Why can't the marooned people stumble across an undiscovered island? This will be a work of fiction :) $\endgroup$
    – Recelica
    Commented Dec 9, 2017 at 17:30
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    $\begingroup$ @kingledion: Well, "killed and eaten by natives" just means "the rest of their lives" was rather short, no? But I really don't think the question is answerable, because if you are in a period where ~350 people can be on a ship, there's going to be enough seagoing traffic that the survivors will eventually be discovered. For instance the Bounty mutineers were deliberately trying to hide, but it only took about 18 years for the survivors to be found. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Dec 10, 2017 at 4:58

4 Answers 4

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500 years

Mauritius and Reunion/Bourbon are relatively large islands (about 2000 and 2500 km$^2$, respectively). They were isolated from people and evidently not visited until the Portuguese stopped by both in 1507. These islands were permanently occupied by the Dutch in 1598 (Mauritius) and the French in 1642 (Reunion). The Dutch attempts on Mauritius actually failed several times, and petered out for good in 1710, whereupon Mauritius was permanently colonized by the French in 1715.

Mauritius is of course famous as the home of the dodo, which did not long survive first contact with humans.

200 years?

The islands of the South Atlantic, in particular Tristan da Cunha in the aptly named Inaccessible Isles are even less visited. They were also first visited around the same time period, in 1506, again by the Portuguese. But they were sighted, there is no record of a landing until 1643, by the Dutch. There are only four other records of a landing by the Dutch, who also were the first to add the islands to a map in 1658. The first official survey of the islands was in 1767 by the French, and the first settlers were American whalers in 1810.

However, there are a lot of downsides to these islands. Unlike Mauritus and Reunion, these islands have no mammals (not counting seals), reptiles, butterflies, or snails. Also important, these islands have no trees and no rivers, although it is super rainy. The record high on the islands is 24 C/75 F, and the record low is 4 C/40 F; it is pretty much 17 C / 64 F every day in the summer and 12 C / 54 F every day in the winter. It also rains at least 1/2 of the days, up to 5/6 days in the winter. The summer averages 5 hours of sunshine a day, down to 3 in the winter. All in all, not super hospitable.

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Possibly about 1800, but more likely before the Age of Exploration

All but one of the men who landed on Pitcairn Island in 1790 died on the island before the next ship to actually send someone ashore found it, in 1808. Three ships had passed within view without stopping or signalling in the interim.

So it's plausible for a larger group to have settled on a similarly remote, perhaps slightly larger, island at about that time; but to make it likeley that young adults in the party would be there for "the rest of their [lives]", there would have to be additional factors, like severe climate-change and wars at home, meaning civilization pulled back on general exploration.

And if you meant "rest of their [lives]" simply in terms of dying there, not living to a ripe old age, there are other comparable examples; for example, the first English colony at Roanoke, founded in 1585 and gone when the next ship arrived, five years later.

But even back in the 1500s, if a party shipwrecked somewhere, there was a good chance that someone else would come afterward (either looking for them, or looking for the same thing they were seeking). For example, one of Fernando Cortez's translators was Gerónimo de Aguilar, shipwrecked on the Yucatán penninsula (then thought to be an island) in 1511 and rescued in 1519.

And Cortez himself, after scuttling his ships in August 1519, was followed by another Spanish expedition that landed in April 1520 (with orders to arrest him for mutiny, dead or alive...)

So some factors that would make the scenario more realistic would be:

  • The party going off to found a settlement and escape persecution or wickedness, not bring back treasure
  • Blown off course due to bad weather or poor navigation, finding an island where none had been found before
  • Reasons why the home country wouldn be looking for them
  • As you mentioned in the question, away from established trade routes

Also, your question says "isolated" but not "uninhabited". Perhaps the island has existing inhabitants, who have been contacted but were warlike and ininterested in trade, but the new group is able to conquer or otherwise assimilate with them.

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Today..

North Sentinel Island, India is home to the Sentinelese, an indigenous people with no contact with the outside world. The Sentinelese are violently hostile to visitors and may attack with spears, bows, and arrows.

Few years ago a missionary tried to go to teach them about their god and got a spear for their trouble, so they're effectively cut off from the rest of the world and undisturbed.

Of course, for your story, you might need the Sentinelese to have died out so they don't kill your survivors (may be one of the shishkabobbed missionaries gave them a nice cold before expiring), only, the rest of the world doesn't know they've died out, so are still leaving them alone.

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Now, as we are necroposting, I have another idea. It's cold. Very cold.

Arctic islands

  • Novaya Zemlya is a larger group of two major islands, Wikipedia in other language told me, they were explored in 11th and 16th centuries, there were expeditions in the end of 1500s, but the next ones were in 1821. So, drop off there in 1600 and you have two centuries when only some local hunters might visit you.
  • Saint Peter Islands were discovered in 1736, anytime before it you are fine. The island are on the present-day Northern Sea Route, but this does not matter much in 15th century.
  • Sengeisky is said to be one of the hard-reachable islands in the Barents sea. It has no inhabitants as of today, it probably never had some. There is quite some fish, birds and further survuvalistic resources there. The only visit you risk, is from some locals, but I am not sure.

Antarctica islands

In most of them, humans have not visited them for decades since. But, basically, arriving there in 16th century you do nothing wrong. Except, well, arriving there.

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  • $\begingroup$ The rest of those survivors life would be quite short. But no-one will find them alive that's guaranteed. So, technically it's a correct answer. $\endgroup$
    – user28434
    Commented Jan 19 at 13:26
  • $\begingroup$ Well, they could have built igloos, brought with them some generators and fuel, or build a boat and try to reach civilisation. But yeah, if unprepared and in cold season it looks pretty grim. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 20 at 14:03

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