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Walter Bright

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One Million Years B.C.

June 02, 2009

Regular people have an idle fantasy about being stranded on a desert island. What will they do, what book would they bring, who would they prefer to be stranded with? The classic and endlessly imitated version of this is Robinson Crusoe, the modern version is Lost.

We geeks have a slightly different version of this fantasy. What if we were flung back into the past? It's a common science fiction plot, such as in the novel Island in the Sea of Time and on TV such as Battlestar Galactica. My version of it is what if one was transported naked 20,000 years into the past, with nothing but what happens to currently reside in one's brain. You meet up with the local natives. If you could initially convince them not to roast you for dinner, and get them to accept you into their tribe, what lasting benefit could you bestow upon them based on your knowledge, unaugmented by any technological infrastructure or reference material?

20,000 years ago, man had fire, pottery, bows and arrows, and clothing. But he didn't have writing, agriculture, or metals. It's surprisingly difficult to come up with some knowledge that can be provided that:

  • they could understand given no technical knowledge
  • would be clearly useful in their lives
  • did not require some supporting technology

For example, consider writing. Seems like a slam-dunk idea, right? But writing requires some sort of paper and ink. Sure, you could use mud tablets, but for nomadic hunters, Sean pointed out who is going to cart around heavy tablets with at most a few sentences on them? They'd think you were nuts.

Writing probably requires agriculture as a precursor, because writing is both immediately useful to an organized agricultural society, and you don't have to transport the brick tablets anywhere. How about the wheel? Think about  fashioning a wheel and the requisite axle and some sort of cart using only stone tools. You have no nails, saws or screws. Remember there are no roads. Even if you successfuly build one, it's likely to be very heavy and fragile. I suspect it would be useless to the tribe.

We had a fun discussion of this over in the Digital Mars forums, and I've thought more about it since, and the more I think, the more I am convinced it is iron technology (first mentioned by Andrei). Given pottery technology, a furnace could be constructed that would get hot enough to extract iron from ore. Iron tools are incredibly useful to even the most primitive society, meaning that they'd make the effort to learn and propagate the technology once it was shown to them.

The problem, though, is how many of us know how to find, recognize, and smelt iron? It's a good idea to bone up on it just in case!

(Certainly I can hardly think of a more useless skill 20,000 years ago than expertise in programming languages!)

What do you think?

Thanks to Jason House, David Held, and Bartosz Milewski for reviewing a draft of this. 


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