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In the 1970s, I read a short story, in an anthology. For most of the story, one thinks the characters live in prehistoric times but they talk about the hot, dangerous place no one can go. Eventually towards the end, a couple of teens go to the hot place and find a building with canned goods and the reader realizes the story is set in the future, after nuclear war.

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  • Sounds familiar youtube.com/watch?v=EHXEMfUVtY4
    – Valorum
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 5:44
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    There's a book by Andre Norton with a scene like this; it's called 'Star Man's Son'. I'd post this as an answer, but if the poster is looking for a short story it may be something different.google.com/…
    – sueelleker
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 9:26
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    Sounds like the plot of the 1958 film Teenage Caveman. Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 13:39
  • Might the story have been segmented with one component actually taking place in prehistoric time, but the rest as you describe. Commented Oct 15, 2022 at 15:29

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There are lots of stories where Postapocalyptic Savages Explore a Magical City of the Ancients; you could call them a subgenre. The most specific detail in your description is the canned goods. Based on that and the fact that it's a much-reprinted famous classic, I guess you're thinking of:

"By the Waters of Babylon" a.k.a. "The Place of the Gods", a 1937 short story by Stephen Vincent Benét, which was also the answer to the question Short-story about a post-apocalyptic future that is only revealed at the end.

Wikipedia plot summary:

Set in a future following the destruction of industrial civilization, the story is narrated by a young man who is the son of a priest. The priests of John's people (the Hill People) are inquisitive people associated with the divine. They are the only ones who can handle metal collected from the homes (called the "Dead Places") of long-dead people whom they believe to be gods. The plot follows John’s self-assigned mission to get to the Place of the Gods. His father allows him to go on a spiritual journey, not realizing John is going to this forbidden place.

John journeys through the forest for eight days and crosses the river Ou-dis-sun. Once John gets to the Place of the Gods, he feels the energy and magic there. He sees a statue of a "god"—in point of fact, a human—that says "ASHING" on its base. He also sees a building marked "UBTREAS". After being chased by dogs and climbing the stairs of a large building, John sees a dead god. Upon viewing the visage, he has an epiphany that the gods were humans whose power overwhelmed their good judgment. After John returns to his tribe, he tells his father of "the place New York." His father warns him against recounting his experiences to others in the tribe, for sometimes too much truth is a bad thing, that it must be told little by little. The story ends with John stating his conviction that, once he becomes the head priest, "We must build again."

The story differs from your description in that the city is explored by a solitary young man, not "a couple of teens."

Here is the part about the canned goods:

I went north—I did not try to hide myself. When a god or a demon saw me, then I would did, but meanwhile I was no longer afraid. My hunger for knowledge burned in me—there was so much that I could not understand. After a while, I knew that my belly was hungry. I could have hunted for my meat, but I did not hunt. It is known that the gods did not hunt as we do—they got their food from enchanted boxes and jars. Sometimes these are still found in the Dead Places—once, when I was a child and foolish, I opened such a jar and tasted it and found the food sweet. But my father found out and punished me for it strictly, for, often, that food is death. Now, though, I had gone long past what is forbidden, and I entered the likeliest towers, looking for the food of the gods.

I found it at last in the ruins of a great temple in the mid-city. A mighty temple it must have been, for the roof was painted like the sky at night with its stars—that much I could see, though the colors were faint and dim. It went down into great caves and tunnels—perhaps they kept their slaves their. But when I started to climb down, I heard the squeaking of rats, so I did not go—rats are unclean, and there must have been many tribes of them, from the squeaking. But near there, I found food, in the heart of a ruin, behind a door that still opened. I ate only the fruits from the jars—they had a very sweet taste. There was drink, too, in bottles of glass—the drink of the gods was strong and made my head swim. After I had eaten and drunk, I slept on the top of a stone, my bow at my side.

The apocalypse was a war, not necessarily nuclear. (The story was published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1937, when nuclear in this sense was not yet a household word.) John has a vision:

Were they happy? What is happiness to the gods? They were great, they were mighty, they were wonderful and terrible. As I looked upon them and their magic, I felt like a child—but a little more, it seemed to me, and they would pull down the moon from the sky. I saw them with wisdom beyond wisdom and knowledge beyond knowledge. And yet not all they did was well done—even I could see that—and yet their wisdom could not but grow until all was peace.

Then I saw their fate come upon them and that was terrible past speech. It came upon them as they walked the streets of their city. I have been in fights with the Forest People—I have seen men die. But this was not like that. When gods war with gods, they use weapons we do not know. It was fire falling out of the sky and a mist that poisoned. It was the time of the Great Burning and the Destruction. They ran about like ants in the streets of their city—poor gods, poor gods! Then the towers began to fall. A few escaped—yes, a few. The legends tell it. But, even after the city had become a Dead Place, for many years the poison was still in the ground. I saw it happen. I saw the last of them die. It was darkness over the broken city and I wept.

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  • In 1937, there were just a handful of people who had any idea of making a real fission bomb. I don't recall when the right isotopes and other details were determined, but a self-sustaining chain reaction was not until 1942. On the other hand, somehow before any physicist had any real belief in atomic energy (Rutherford as late as the 1930s called it "Moonshine"), Wells wrote of atomic bombs which, curiously, kind of worked like a nuclear reactor, their activity being ongoing rather than exploding all at once.
    – releseabe
    Commented Oct 17, 2022 at 12:01

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