Has human technological levels ever regressed? When/how much?

One of the driving prognostications behind apocalyptic Peak Oil believers is that when we run out of oil, human civilization will be knocked back centuries in terms of technology and its advancement. Someone here described a book that described a future world that’s “like the 19th century, but with electricity.”

Has anything like this happened before in human history WITHOUT the civilization/culture in question dying out? If so, how much was the regression?

Probably not quite what you’re looking for, but the Japanese intentionally abandoned most gunpowder military technology after Japan was united under the Tokugawa shoguns in the seventeenth century.

The incidence of literacy, bathing, travel, and trade have all waxed and waned in the Western world. Even the Ancient Greeks had a dark age that wiped out most of their literacy rate for a while.

Well, yes, but you can have literacy without technology, which is what I was asking about. Was I not clear?

The Romans knew how to cast stone into any shape they wanted: concrete. That technology disappeared for about 1000 years before it got figured out again.

Yes, but was there any other Roman technology that was lost when the Empire went down the tubes?

No, you weren’t, because writing is technology.

(And I’d also dispute your ability to have other technologies beyond a certain level of complexity without widespread literacy. Lifetimes are only so long, apprenticeships only last so long, and even motivated learners can only retain so much without external help.)

Generally speaking, a culture only loses technology when it is overrun by a less-advanced culture - that’s what caused the Greek Dark Age, and that’s what happened to the Romans. I can’t think of any culture that regressed spontaneously. Stagnation, yes. That happens fairly often (with Rome and China, for instance). But not regression.

Well, there are some examples in Jared Diamond book “Collapse”. If I remember correctly, for example Easter Island people over time lost technologies like building of sea-faring ships and others.

How about the Romans and steam power? Hero of Alexandria made a whole slew of steam engines, but they were quickly forgotten. There’s also the Antikythera mechanism which has an intricate gearing mechanism that wouldn’t be replicated for a long, long time.

There are a number of examples of people who had no knowledge of boat building or seamanship being discovered living in places they can only have reached by sea. The Australian aborigines are a good example.

True, but IIRC, none of them were literate cultures.

As mentioned by others, the Romans had some impressive technology – gearing (not only the Antikythera device, but they also built odometers!), a very limited optical technology, some pretty good medical and surgical knowledge and techology (their specula look like modern ones), public sewers and aqueducts, and intricate roads. The Middle Ages weren’t the complete loss of technology and knowledge that people often think it was (and there were bursts of intellectual and technical activity during that period, even in Europe), but there’s little doubt that a lot of knowledge and technology disappeared without the Empire to support it.
It’s already been mentioned how the Japanese gave up gunpowder and guns. Less known is that, in Europe, the Papacy once tried to ban the use of the crossbow, for similar reasons (it allowed easily-equipped footsoldiers, wityhout long training, to put down mounted and upper-class warriors), but it didn’t “take”. The crossbow continued to be used – popes didn’t have the absolute control the Shogun did.

Apparently, Easter Islanders had their own writing system, although presumably knowledge of which was restricted to narrow class of professional scribes.

Crossbow is interesting example also for it’s pre-papal-ban history. Romans known various forms of crossbow-like weapons, but after fall of Rome they fell out of use for several centuries until reintroduced in middle-ages.

The knowledge of how to make Greek Fire was so closely guarded by the Byzantines that its exact composition is a mystery to this day.

We now have the ability to manufacture several substances that replicate Greek Fire (including Napalm and some other mixtures that burn on contact with water), but no-one knows exactly what the mixture used by the Byzantines to create Greek Fire actually was.

As has already been mentioned, the Japanese deliberately abandoned gunpowder (and remain the only culture in history to ever have done so), and we have the technology and ability to send people to the Moon but haven’t done so for 30 years now.

Similarly, we have supersonic passenger aircraft that are no longer in service, meaning you can’t cross the Atlantic in 3 hours anymore unless you’re a military fighter pilot, so I think a case could be made that there’s actually regression even in the “Modern” world.

It happens. China lost the ability to make long range ships; due to the deliberate destruction of the knowledge involved, as I recall. Rather like Japan and gunpowder.

Isolated cultures can easily lose technology; seafaring as mentioned, the bow and arrow, and so on. The smaller they are, the easier it is for the few who know the techniques to be killed before passing on what they know. As I recall ( from Collapse or Guns, Germs and Steel, I think ), one tiny island tribe was found that had lost so much they were more primitive than Neolithic cultures.

the Chinese had the world’s best marine technology in the 1200–1300’s, huge ships capable of crossing oceans. But for cultural reasons (they feared foreign influence) they deliberately destroyed the entire fleet and made it illegal to build new ships.

It wasn’t just a culture that refused to adopt a new technology introduced by foregners . (compare: when the Japanese learned about- but refused to use- guns ( because killing at a distance violated Japanese culture and was dishonorable compared to the chivalry of a swordfight). The Chinese had developed their ship technology on their own, and used it for a generation, before intentionally deciding to destroy it all and regress.


Not really - the Japanese used guns extensively during the late 16th century during the Era of Civil War when the various daimyo thought it would help them win and they had used bows for ever. It was only when Tokugawa Shogunate took control that they were phased out. Guns are simple to train a non-soldier to use - the last thing the Shogunate wanted was quickly raised mass armies opposing their rule.


I wouldn’t call Tasmania “tiny” - Diamond did mention that while there was archaeological evidence of things like fish nets and hooks the Tasmanians met by the Europeans (and later wiped out by them) had no knowledge of such technology. Unlike some of the regressing islands mentioned in Collapse the Tasmanians were stable long term, unlike teeny islands that were simply too small to support viable populations of humans.