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Evolution/De-Evolution of cultures in a post-apocalyptic setting?

So in one of my books/writing projects that I'm currently working on, I'm in the early stages of outlining and worldbuilding. The world in question, Telosza, is essentially going to be a sort of dark fantasy/post-apocalyptic fantasy world. One thing to note about all of my fantasy stories is that they generally take place in different worlds but are all in the same shared universe. And the one thing these worlds have in common is that their magic systems have a basis in structures called "Lifestreams" that flow beneath each planet's surface. As the name implies, the Lifestreams are sort of like life support systems for the worlds, though they also power each world's magic system to some extent.

The thing that makes Telosza different is that due to a certain...event that occurred in its distant history, its Lifestream has been degrading and failing for roughly a millenia. In the present day, when my story takes place, the world is nigh uninhabitable. Most of the land has become dry and barren, unable to sustain crops and flora. Pretty much all of the rivers and lakes have dried up. The oceans are slowly but surely receding from the continents. Tectonic/geologic activity has also ceased for the most part. There is still human life on the planet, but the population is a fraction of what it once was. These small packs of survivors have only lasted as long as they have due to the discovery of rare "artifacts" that somehow hold small slivers of the Lifestream's power. These artifacts have the power to "bless" swathes of land, partially revitalizing it and allowing the soil to spontaneously generate various types of natural resources depending on the location and the magnitude of the blessing. The wielders of these artifacts have essentially created small, walled city-states that survive using the artfact blessings to grow crops and draw water from aquifers.

The issue that I'm running into is that I have a bad habit of coming up with an interesting idea for a world and then failing to come up with a history for that world that is believeable and makes logical sense. Like, I can explain the biophysical and magical mechanics that shape the world (like the Lifestreams) but I'm not very good at explaining how the various countries, societies, people groups, etc. got to the point that they're at in the present day/time period when the story takes place.

In Telosza's case, what I ended up doing was creating a setting where most of the history and culture from the "old world" (i.e. before the collapse of society) has either been forgotten or discarded. Basically, at some point shortly after the event that caused the Lifestream to begin to fail, the consequences of that failure became readily apparent to the world's inhabitants. They noticed that natural resources (i.e. arable land, water, precious metals and/or gems) were starting to disappear, and that this phenomenon was occurring at faster rates in certain regions. The various nations began to panic and fight over the steadily-depleting resources across the land in order to try and survive, with the more powerful countries basically cannibalizing others. Inevitably though, no nation truly survived The Collapse. A large majority of the world population died off throughout the centuries, and the survivors had to band together to create new settlements and communities when they discovered the aforementioned artifacts (which, of course, led to the establishment of the city-states as we know them in the present time). The end result is that most of the world's history has been lost to the ages, and now most people "identify" (in a cultural/ethnic sense) with the city-state that they were born in or currently live in.

However, I have also established that there are some ethnic groups from the old world that have attempted to hold on to their history and culture. In the continent that contains most of my setting, there's one ethnic group in particular that's done a pretty decent job of maintaining their history, culture, and language. However, they don't exactly have a homeland anymore and instead live in diaspora scattered across various city-states. Some of them attempt to assimilate into the culture of the city that they live in, while others choose to form nomadic caravans/tribes that travel the desolate wastelands between cities, making a living through trading and entertaining the local populaces they encounter. Either way, they're not very well accepted by most of the general populace. Even the ones that try to settle down in a specific city-state still usually end up forming their own small communities. They prefer their native tongue over the common language and often have thick accents, making them stand out. Basically, this results in them being shunned and distrusted, usually treated like foreigners or second-class citizens in most places. The analogy I usually think of in my head is that they're treated sort of like Jewish people or gypsies were back in old/historic Europe (disclaimer: I don't actually know a whole lot about the Jewish or the gypsies/Romani people. All I know is that they weren't treated very well throughout history. In any case, I'm not trying to say anything remotely offensive, I was just using them as an analogy).

What I worry is that this scenario isn't quite "realistic" or "believable". I'm no historian, and I'm also still somewhat of an amateur when it comes to fantasy worldbuilding. As such, I'm not really familiar with how cultures and people groups evolve and change over time, and I have even less of an idea how they would evolve (or devolve) in a post-apocalyptic setting such as the one I've described. And now I kinda feel like I need a good reason to explain why some of the cultural and/or ethnic groups dissolved and assimilated/congregated into new ones while others held onto their identities and stuck together after the collapse of the old world. I can't really seem to think of a GOOD justifying reason for that, though. Also, the way I imagine it, race as we know it (i.e. defining different "races" of humans based on different physiological traits such as skin color or facial structure) would probably have stopped mattering to most people long ago. As such, the only reason for the unique/longer-standing ethnic groups to stand out would be due them essentially wearing their distinct culture "on their sleeve" so to speak. Like, wearing their own unique clothing, speaking their native tongue, or having an accent when they speak common. Physiologically, they don't look different enough compared to everyone else to stand out otherwise. Also, keep in mind that, at least in Telosza, I've chosen not to include any "fantastical" races. It's just humans. So when I say "races", I really just mean different races OF humans , like in the real world.

I don't know, I feel kind of lost at this point. I'd like to see what more experienced fantasy writers and worldbuilders thing of the setting I've described so far. How do you guys imagine cultures and people groups evolving/devolving in a post-apocalyptic world? Would some cultures survive while others fall apart and meld together? Would race (in a physiological sense) stop mattering at some point? Let me know what y'all think.
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Makes perfect sense to me!
Carnival sages, caravan keepers of the old ways, rejected by all yet the only that know the history of them. Go for it, an idea that might look weird to you on paper will begin to make sense once you start molding and maturing it into your story, letting it unfold in a way that is comfortable and exciting to you because you are expanding the past, present, and future, all intertwined, as you write.

Mad Swede

Well, yes, your scenario is believable. In fact, similar things have happened in real life. Examples include the Akkadian Empire and the Assyrian Empire in what ins now modern Iraq. Both empires left a legacy which influenced later civilisations, particularly in the fields of mathematics, astronomy and literature. More recent examples include the Greek and Roman Empires, which has left traces in the form of literature, mathematics, judicial concepts, languages and civil engineering.


I think what you have is pretty good! One of my favorite stories is Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris and I've definitely gotten worldbuilding ideas from the Romani people in it (as an FYI, "gypsy" is considered a slur, so it should be Romani/Roma/(Rroma? with two Rs?)). When I was reading your post I thought it sounded a lot like both the Romani and the Jews, which is an okay thing to do. It's okay to pull from real-world things as long as you're not being tone deaf about it (aka no robots wearing triangles and then going to robo concentration camps like in Detroit Becoming Human). Judaism is one of the world's oldest religions and a lot of their holidays are about remembering/retelling parts of their history (and drinking lots of wine), so even if people couldn't read, they still learned their history. I went to my first Passover Seder this year and it was really cool! Very different compared to the Christmases/Easter dinners I went to hosted by Italian Catholics, where it was just assumed we knew what the "reason for the season" was.

Another thing I thought about when reading your post was Fallout; I've never played them, just read some wiki pages. Things were going south world-wide for some time due to the world running out of oil, there was a number of wars, and then it all ended pretty quickly by everyone launching their nukes. If that happened in reality, you would have no way of knowing who shot first, what happened to other nations, as all the infrastructure would be destroyed. There would be no AP news wires reporting on what happened. People would have to put together their own explanations, which could shift over time (like I'm sure America would blame Russia, Iran or North Korea, Japan would blame China or North Korea, India would blame Pakistan), whoever ended up being the (world) culture that served as the basis for this new world would probably be considered the "true" story, like if the only parts of the world that were still habitable were Siberia, everyone would probably think it's America's fault and culture would probably be pretty Russian-y.

Unless you plan on having characters discover THE TRUTH for some plot-related reason, you don't have to come up with the actual answer. We invented stuff for hundreds of thousands of years without knowing what electrons were because it didn't change how the world worked, and that would be the same for your setting. I also imagine you don't plan on writing The Silmarillion. People believing different things could be a good source of conflict! Especially if it's about how magic works. One of my fave ideas is that you can do [thing] with magic, but no one has done so because [cultural/religious belief] says you can't, but then your main character goes YOLO and tries to do [thing] anyway and succeeds in some pressing situation. Could be pretty cool!
Race in a physiologic sense is a relatively new construct. It only dates to colonial America. The concept of whiteness and other-than-whiteness was constructed at that time in an effort to divide and conquer the lower classes. You see, the wealthy were afraid their slaves and indentured servants might band together and overthrow them. It was starting to happen in a few places. Separating them by race and giving one power over the other put the kibosh on that. But first, there had to be a concept of race that could separate them. The idea of blackness and whiteness, in a racial sense, had not previously existed.

I think the idea of race based on skin color could easily disappear within a generation, if people were given an identity that trumped it. I once lived on a U.S. Army base overseas and saw that in action: everyone there identified as American first. The ethnic makeup of it was very thoroughly multiracial, but people didn't treat that as a dividing line at all.
One thing to keep in mind is that a milenium is very long time. As in, a thousand years ago, Columbus hadn't sailed to america, muslim's still ruled parts of spain, the eastern roman empire still existed and so on. A lot has happened in that time. So even a group which claims to hold to their old ways will have changed at least in part. Just in some groups the change will be slower and different than in others. There's nothign wrong with it.

I agree with a few of the suggestions to not worry too much about the history. You won't tell most of it in your story anyway, most people in your story won't know it either. And you can get away with just bits and pieces and vague hints. You can also fill in details later, either as you are writing or when you're editing. If you come to a city and you find that you need a historic reason for why something is the way it is, just make it up on the spot and move on.

Brandon Sanderson has a few lectures on world buidling on Youtube which are worth checking out. But on emajor thing he mentions is that you can't do everything, and it creates a stronger world if you do a few things really well and handwave the rest. For instance, if you give us one historic event which is crucial to the plot, then readers will assume you know the other history as well if you just mention it in passing. Or even, if you paint a clear picture of the magic, then readers will assume you know the other bits of your world as well.
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Miles Lacey

In my WIP the Tarakanese Empire began as a tiny group of islands controlled by spice merchants proclaiming their independence. Through the running of what amounted to a protection racket they expanded over a few millennia to become a huge Empire spread across tens of thousands of islands and millions of square kilometres of ocean.

Despite the existence of radio, movie reels, telegraphs and newspapers the humble story teller still manages to survive, travelling to remote islands to tell stories that includes tales from the past that is used to convey moral, social and even political values. History isn't so much a series of dates and events but a series of stories about people.

It's not important to have a history of your world that's written down as a series of dates when certain things happened. What is important is having a few stories based around a handful of people who helped shaped the world and the cultures in it.