If there was a large scale nuclear war, would it be possible for humanity to literally be blown back into the Stone Age. Like if all pre war knowlege and technology was destroyed could people revert back to how people lived in the early days of human history?

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    $\begingroup$ No. It's very hard to imagine a scenario where technology regresses below the early 20th century. There are too many books and too many people who know how to make old-fashioned printing presses (it's a real widespread hobby!) and steam engines and electronic valves. And while not impossible it's hard to imagine a nuclear war which would have a civilization-ending effect on New Zealand or Argentina. In fact, most plausible scenarios would leave the southern hemisphere much less affected than the northern. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Dec 10, 2017 at 22:30
  • $\begingroup$ I have to disagree. The reason why modern people can be so productive, is because we have so much free time. Back in the day, before modern agriculture, most of their time was spend on the creation of food and basic necessities. To regress humanity into preenlightenment times, you only need to kill enough people. Most people have no clue, how to live on their own, without the support of society. And after a few generations, basic skills would be forgotten. Not to mention, that reading must be taught, and would not necessarily be that useful in a postapocalyptic world. $\endgroup$ Jan 23, 2020 at 17:34
  • $\begingroup$ So if there was a disease on plague level (something antibiotic resistant), because of the reliance on the complex system as a whole, everything would crumble down. 200 years or so later, and you are AT LEAST back in the dark ages $\endgroup$ Jan 23, 2020 at 17:36

5 Answers 5


You are not going to go back to the Stone Age. If nothing else, only a few specialists know how to knapp a decent stone tool these days.

What you might get instead is something you might call the Salvage Age. People may not have the industrial base to manufacture many things, but they can re-use and adapt what is laying around. If you don't have the wherewithal to make brass cases & primers for modern guns, you can convert to black powder (lots of amateurs use it), or make arrows for the compound bows down at the local sporting goods store. Likewise, you don't need to make stone clubs when there's plenty of good steel that can be worked into swords.

Fundamentally, you are not going to lose all knowledge. Contrary to what Tim B suggests in his answer, there are a good number of well-educated people who've chosen to live in rural areas, and so would have a good chance of surviving a nuclear war. There are also such things as books: my own personal library (I live in a rural area) covers subjects from home repair and gardening up to general relativity. You might not be building a silicon foundry any time soon, but there'd be the knowledge of what could be done.

There's also a great deal of practical knowledge held in the minds of farmers and such. The electric grid fails? You can cobble together a system from car alternators and run it on water or wind. Haven't got petrol fuel? Not that hard to distill alcohol or make biodiesel. You might not make enough for an urban commuter culture, but there'd be enough to run farm equipment. And there'd be the accumulated knowledge of generations to tell you how to be a better farmer than Stone Age people, or even 19th century ones.



*: Terms and restrictions apply.

This line of thought is not mine, but I like it a lot. The point is, to bomb a humanity into Stone Age you would need to destroy not only infrastructure, but knowledge. As in: all people, bearing that knowledge.

As long as the community has engineers, or at least people with modern technical education, it is impossible for it to descend below Renaissance. For Leonardo da Vinci level of tech, all you need is wood. Scrapping on the remaining of our current industrial civilisation would provide much more. Just surviving in the woods with modern-educated people would provide you this.

The only way to descend a human civilisation below Renaissance is either strip them of all resources (they die), or kill all adults and let the kids derive their own savage civilisation, "Lord of the flies"-style. This is not what you typically reach by carpet bombing, provided there are still survivors.

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    $\begingroup$ It's also hard to come up with a scenario where you lose the ability to produce and create electricity. An electric motor is in principle a generator working in reverse, and although a motor would make a poor generator, many of the components can be scavenged to produce a more effective generator, and there are millions of electric motors out there. And that's before you get to the specifically-built generators, ranging from car alternators to massive industrial ones. $\endgroup$ Dec 11, 2017 at 18:53
  • $\begingroup$ Renaissance level tech includes some metal. There is no easily-mined metal left in the world other than that which is in use and if we are blown to the edge of extinction almost all that metal will be unrecoverable before we recover enough to use it. $\endgroup$ Dec 16, 2017 at 15:58
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    $\begingroup$ I'd guess that crawling through radioactive dumpster that were our cities might help with metal. Further, there were amazing pure-wood technologies, like, build a house without using any metal nails at all. If we still have a modern engineering culture, these could be rediscovered (or dug up from a library) quite fast. $\endgroup$ Dec 16, 2017 at 17:32
  • $\begingroup$ @OlegLobachev The cities are going to be burned. An awful lot of that metal will be oxidized or simply reduced to small enough bits it can't be recovered. $\endgroup$ Jun 11, 2019 at 5:11
  • $\begingroup$ If enough people die, the rest would work much more intensively to hold up food production, especially those, who are not used to hunting/farming their own food. I think, at first, people would not have the time to worry about silly things such as electricity. Survival is not as easy, as you make it seem. There are other people to worry about, people who are desperate and would do anything for food. There are animals, who now roam the deserted cities, and without modern technologies, you against a pack of hungry dogs is a fair fight again. And then, there are the old problems food and water... $\endgroup$ Jan 23, 2020 at 17:40


But the one and only way you are assured to do it is to destroy everyone but the Sentinelese (See also...).

The Sentinelese are believed to be the last pre-neolithic tribe in the world. They literally are stone-age people. If they were the only people to remain, the world would be pushed back to the stone age.

There are (perhaps) a few other uncontacted peoples in the world who, if they survived, would become stone-age throwbacks. However, most are gone and none of those remaining are untainted. Nevertheless, any that still survive might also be the basis for a story (but only the Sentinelese could guarantee it).

However, if anyone else survives, you'll get a hybrid of the 1500s and the 1900s depending on what mix of skill sets and technological resources survived.

To be honest, it's realitively easy to retain basic metallurgy and manufacturing. Unless you magically killed all the adults, you'd be back to basic automobiles, functioning steam trains, and locally-generated electricity fairly quickly.

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    $\begingroup$ I was thinking the same, although probably not quite as specific as your answer. If you wiped out all of the developed world and just left a few scattered tribes who are well-placed to survive independently. Many of them will currently rely on metal tools, but it's reasonable to assume that they will be able to maintain the metal for long enough to learn how to replace it with stone as they wear out. $\endgroup$ Dec 11, 2017 at 14:05

Alex makes an interesting point in his comment, but I don't fully agree with it. He's right insofar as there would be pockets of humanity that would be capable of living with at least early 20th century technology, but in the Northern Hemisphere in particular, it's possible that people could be bombed, if not back to the stone age, at least to a pre-industrial revolution society. This is not because technology would disappear; it's because the skills would go.

Just like in a pandemic scenario (killer flu, zombie apocalypse, etc.), people stop producing. They do this, not because they are afraid of disease or attack, but because they're dead. In this case, we can consider cities lost because they're prime targets for nuclear strike. Even those that aren't need massive supplies of food (and shipping) that might not be available.

The problem here is that we now specialise in our society. Some of us know how to grow crops, but we don't know how to smelt metal. Some of us know how to mine, but in practice the skills required to do this today are based around operating heavy machinery. Heavy machinery that is now useless unless we have a regular supply of fuel.

Where are all our architects? Most of our engineers? Our logistics specialists? the manufacturing plants for things as simple as nails?

They're all in cities.

Even those that aren't are now subject to Maslow's Hierarchy of needs like the rest of us. They have to learn how to grow crops and protect their family and property from raiders and the like. They're unlikely to pass on the ability to design buildings, operate heavy equipment et al to their children in lieu of how to survive in a world that only has patchy access to do these things.

The caveat here is that if you have a strong functioning government capable of mass communications with their constituents (remember all the communications and digital data is located in the cities too), then you might have a chance of getting someone to grow and supply food to an architect so he is free to design buildings. In the short to medium term however, that's not going to happen and feeding himself and his family has to be a priority over designing a new building, and he's already at a disadvantage compared to (say) a farmer in that regard.

What's he going to do? Look up farming on the internet? (Oh, wait. Those data centres and critical infrastructure was all based in cities...)

So; stone age? Probably not. But, the society and culture that strings up in the wake of such a strike would have a lot in common with a neolithic society insofar as it would likely devolve into a clan based system where those with the ability to repair things would likely be revered far more than people who can design something new. Eventually, the focus would have to change because what's left finally wears out, but by then the skills have likely died out and even if they haven't, where do you get the resources to build what you need?

Our society functions the way it does because our farming techniques mean that we only need a small percentage of our population generating food. The rest of that productive capacity can be spent on other things (including designing the machines of war). In a post-atomic scenario, that changes and all of a sudden, we need a much larger percentage of the population generating food. That means that many of the interlinked support industries that allow us to manufacture technical products are no longer possible.

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    $\begingroup$ Re "They're all in cities", no, they're not. A reasonable number of successful ones have learned that they can use the internet to do their tech jobs while living in rural areas. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Dec 11, 2017 at 3:55


Nuclear Winter is well established. the smoke from burning cities will be so thick that the atmosphere will become Turbid.

Once the sunlight is blocked all our crops will fail, the mass starvation and total environmental collapse will result in the total and complete collapse of all civilizations.

Once crops fail, other plant life will also have failed. The dearth of oxygen, due to the death of the vast majority of plant life, will result in humanity basically becoming extinct except for in a few remote locations underground where humans survive off of the heat from local volcanic activity, and the oxygen produced by bacteria, and eating troglobites to survive.

There are probably pockets of plants left near the equator and near jetstreams to help with Oxygen production. Plants clearly survived the Dinosaur killer asteroid after all.

As snowfall accumulates, but doesn't melt, glaciers will erode the ruins of our cities.

By the time the next Ice Age is over, you'll be back in the Stone Age.


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