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Thought Experiment

The Man from the Future: A Thought Experiment

A thought experiment inspired by first principles thinking to understand human evolution and history.

Imagine a hypothetical scenario wherein the split of a second you’re transported back to the past thousands of years ago. You’re the only surviving man from the future. You’re surrounded by 100 other uncivilized humans who do not have a clue about who you are, yet they obey you. You are surrounded by pristine untouched natural landscapes with abundant resources. Your cognitive abilities and memory of the future remain intact, but you’re not carrying anything from the future. You’re just a raw human with some crazy knowledge and ideas. How will you shape your present world with the knowledge you have from the future? Is your knowledge enough to create a civilization as good as your future? What all things can you build with the human resources you have?

The Experiment

The Man from the Future is a thought experiment that I’ve been exploring over the years to understand the basics of everything we’re experiencing today ranging from food to our gadgets. Human history is quite fascinating and the pleasures we’re enjoying today has been achieved through multiple iterations of science, technology or culture, built upon the knowledge of past generations. The first principle’s thinking and Thomas Thwaites’s Toaster Project had a great influence on this thought experiment. I use this thought experiment as a way to deeply understand our history and human evolution. If I cannot think of a way to do something from scratch, chances are that I do not know everything about it. This is quite daunting considering the number of things we use daily but gives us an idea of the evolution of things over time.

Analysis

Coming back to the thought experiment, what all things can you build? Do you think you can advance humanity with the complex knowledge you possess in your lifetime in the past? I’ve been thinking about this for a while and have listed down a few things that are essential with possible scenarios to achieve them. The list also includes items that I wanted to achieve but failed due to the lack of knowledge I have. This also questions the depth of knowledge I have on everyday things. I think Yuval Harari said this in Sapiens (not sure!) that the average knowledge of a hunter-gatherer was more than the average knowledge of a modern human. The overall collective knowledge of humanity has increased over years, but at a personal scale, the amount of collective knowledge has decreased.

This is a working article and will be updated accordingly as I explore more ideas.

  • Tools: A tool like a knife is essential to survive and build humanity. A tool with metals is not possible until the discovery and extraction of metals, but one with a stone can be easily made. Hit a sharp stone with another or file it against another rock to make a basic knife or shrapnel to cut trees and branches. Thanks to some survival YouTube videos I have seen!
  • Rope: The tool would be better with a wooden handle. Some ropes are to secure the wooden stick with the stone tool. I can use some long roots or strong climbers or hanging branches as ropes for these purposes.
  • Shelter: With the tool I have and human resources available, I can make some basic houses for shelter. I can use tree logs and branches to create a strong structure secured by ropes collected. The roof can be covered using palm leaves or any other branch cut using a knife. I need to build this shelter as close to the water as possible.
  • Fire: Fire is very important for survival, but as I’m writing this I realized I don’t really know much about making fire from scratch. When I was young, I had tried and failed to make fire using stones. I know fire can be made using rotating a piece of wood against another, but what kind of wood should I use? I’m not really confident about this as I’ve never done this. I wish I had known how flint rocks look in nature.
  • Food: Finding food is tricky since nature is untouched. Many of the vegetables and fruits that we eat today do not look the same in the wild. What we see and eat today are plants that are being collectively bred by humans over centuries. My best bet in such a scenario would be to find some mushrooms, root plants or berries. But I do not have any idea that is edible or not. At this point with the limited tools I have, catching animals won’t be a good idea. Even if I find food, it would probably suck as there is no salt. If I have a sea or ocean nearby, I can collect some water in a coconut shell and let it dry to collect some salt.
  • Agriculture: Agriculture is key for my survival and the tribes. Every time I eat something, I need to store the seeds or stem of the plant to reproduce it at a scale next time. But how do I group things? I do not have a label maker or even a pen. I also do not have a pouch or a plastic bag to store the seeds. Better make storage out of stones to store and group these seeds. I can use some plant leaves or flowers to mark these stones as I still remember the alphabet. I’m also not sure whether the seeds I’ve collected will sprout. I need to collect and use them wisely to obtain the right yield.
  • Knowledge: As I do not have any books or electronic media to store information, I need to find a way to store the information I acquire over the days. At a basic level, I need to develop some sort of a pictorial writing system until I figure out how to make paper and some sort of pen and ink.
  • Fishing: Fishes are an excellent source of protein low in fat with omega-3 fatty acids. Since the tribe lives near the water body, it’s an easier source of food. I can use some stone tools that are attached to a wooden stick to make some sort of spear to catch fish in the shallow waters. I do not know which fish I shouldn’t eat but I guess at this point everything is edible. I also need to train a few members of the tribe on how to swim and dive. Diving is essential as some shellfish live on the bottom portion of the water body and are excellent sources of protein.
  • Transportation: Over time as I expand my civilization, transportation is essential. The idea of the wheel is simple but making it is quite tough in the wild with primitive tools. The idea here is to dedicate some human resources to making some wheels from logs of wood and stones by carving and filing. Ideally, I want to build some sort of cart with a wooden axle supported by four stone or wooden wheels.
  • Animals: As I’m writing this, I feel like this is quite unethical. But for the survival of my species, I feel like animals are essential. What animals should I tame and how do I tame? Can I find a cow in the wild? Can I find a rooster and a hen in the world? I don’t think dogs exist as wolves are their ancestor. Catching and taming a wolf or buffalo at this point is quite tricky. I’m clueless at this point. But as my cart is getting ready, I would need some animals to pull it.
  • Irrigation: If I’m planning on agriculture, water is key for its growth. How do I transport water from the river to the fields? I can ask my people to dig some canals as this is the most practical thing to do. Or should I use some bamboo water pipes to bring water? I feel like this part is quite easy and doable.
  • Clothing: Is clothing necessary at this point in time? I don’t think there are enough resources to ensure clothing for everyone. I can try to make some clothing using leaves or animal skin. Some palm leaves with some ropes can be used to make a basic skirt.
  • Time: Tracking time is vital as this can help me predict seasons. But how do I track time? Should I use a cave wall to mark the number of days? But what day is today? Which season are we going through now? This is quite tricky.
  • Food Preservation: Once I have figured out the timings of seasons, it is now time to look at preserving food. How do I preserve food? I know how to preserve fish with salt and sunlight. I can also preserve meat and some vegetables the same way, but the success can be achieved only by some trial and error. Another problem is where will I store the preserved food? Do rats exist in the wild? How do I create a makeshift storage space with the limited resources I have?
  • Education: So far my tribe members have obeyed me, but we do not communicate. We communicate through some actions, but I feel it is time to teach them some language. What language should I teach them? I feel like English is quite complicated for a primitive population. How do I design a new language or how are languages formed? If I die someday accidentally, it is important that I preserve the knowledge for future generations. But how do I preserve it? Should I build a new language from scratch?

The End

As I’m writing this, I’ve realized that much knowledge I possess like electromagnetism, string theory, aerodynamics, etc is of no use until the civilization advances to a point. I had much fun writing this post and will update it as I get more ideas over time. Meanwhile, drop your comments on things that you feel you can achieve.

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11 replies on “The Man from the Future: A Thought Experiment”

Well if that were to happen I believe will find the solutions faster and easier rather than thinking about it without being in the situation.

This kind of Thought-provoking experiment is so much fun for me and so intriguing. I’ll have to think about it and will write more later. I love what you put into it so far. I would love to keep his thought process going and also it really is the grounds for a great book or a movie or screenplay.

Ironically, the wheel was my very first thought. You’ve got a great start though, and I agree – I wish I knew what flint looked like too!
Find some tree sap to use as glue. Definitely make a hat to cover your head. Teach proper posture and lifting weights with your legs to minimize the chance of back injury.
And then I’m thinking further ahead… Consider the rules you would make to prevent deforestation or where/how you would sort the trash and compost pile to prevent build-up. Where would you make the toilet to prevent disease? Community outhouse or families all have their own? What about how you would incorporate music, dance, religion, storytelling, etc?
Would you teach the concept of measurable time? And if so, do you leave 60 minutes in an hour?
Do you create a system of justice? Do you try and teach equality? Do you separate gender roles? Do you create prophylactics?
So much to consider…

Thanks for the great points.

I have couple of questions:

– How can i define time? How do I define 1s. Or will I have to resort something like a sand clock and calibrate it?
– Toilets I was planning to dig trench holes few metres deep ideally 200 metres from the water body.
– Do you think deforestation matters at this small scale?

For time you can make an old school sun-dial which would broadly tell you the hours. Obviously can only be used in the day and not useful if you need minutes.

That’s a good point. Also, I can calibrate it to get 15 minute variations right?

Great article and really got me thinking. I’m in the middle of reading “Sapiens” and recommend it to everyone. It seems like sapiens did a lot of damage to the environment and didn’t necessarily create a better or easier life for themselves. Read “Sapiens.” It’s an eye opener.

Hey! Sapiens is one of my favorite books of all time. I think Sapiens influenced me in a bit in this thought process.

Hello. I have imagined a new world because I was thinking of this for some years. I have the solution for everything. If you want to communicate with me it’s my pleasure.
P.s. Is that Apollon in your picture?

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