Bringing prehistoric fantasy worlds to life

Work on my Ancient Lands setting is coming along nicely and not only do I have all the components parts ready, but also got names for almost all of them. Unless you tried building a fictional world and create a compendium of all the main groups, places, and creatures, you won’t believe how terribly difficult that last part is. Making names is easy, making names that are not total garbage and sound completely made up is unbelievably hard work. And it doesn’t get easier when you get to make some 200 of them that are supposed to come from half a dozen different language families.

Now that I know where all the places are, who lives there, what their relationships with each other are, and what kinds of environments and creatures make up the world outside the settlements, the next step is both much more complex, but I think also easier. A fantasy world is not a map with names on it, but it is all about the people who live in that world and how they interact with each other. How do they behave, what do they believe, what to they want, what do they fear, what do they opposose, who has power, of what kind is that power, how do they live, how do they fight? Take the first half hour of Star Wars for example: You don’t know who any of these people are, what those places are you see, and what everything is about. But it’s still a very evocative setting, just from seeing the people interact with the world around them and each other. (Star Wars is also what I consider to be one of the greatest examples of the effective use of archetypes: The moment you see Darth Vader you know exactly what kind of character he is, and the imperial uniforms make it perfectly clear what type of Empire this is. Nobody has to say it, it’s clear because you’ve seen people like these countless times before, and you’re meant to recognize them.) In Fantasy, it is very common to do things the standard way, which means the popular image of the European middle ages. Connor Gormley wrote some interesting thoughts on why this isn’t necessarily a bad thing at Black Gate a while ago. But the Ancient Lands is specifically meant to not evoke images of a medieval world, but instead aims to feel prehistoric. The reason I think it’s also easier than chosing the elements that you want to put into your world is that from this point on you’re actually staring to thing of people and events and the possibilities now are based on the things you already have in place and don’t come purely from a vacuum.

The idea of a “prehistoric time” is a bit blurry. Originall the term refered to the periods of human civilization and culture from which we have no historic records. Only archeological finds and reports from later times, but no documents in which those people wrote down what happened during their own time. The “historic period”, as least as far as Europe, the Mediterranean, and Mesopotamia are concerned, is generally divided into Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and Modernity (which really just mean old age, middle age, and current age), while the “prehistoric period” is split up into the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. Antiquity is generally considered to start with the rise of the classical Greek civilization around the 5th century BC. (Which is convenient, as Antiquity also ends around 500 AD and the Middle Ages last to about 1500 AD, making it easy to remember.) It was a reasonably good idea to classify past human civilizations, but by now we know how to read Egyptian, Akadian, and Hittite and those people wrote quite a lot, so that we now have a lot of historic documents from the Bronze Age. So technically, it’s not really “prehistoric” anymore. But really, the main concern here is fantasy fiction, so when I use the term prehistoric, I mean the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. But even those terms are not perfect, as different parts of the world developed different technologies at different times or skipped some entirely. Southern Africa went straight from the Stone Age to the Iron Age, and it would be completely justified to say that people in Central America went straight from the stone Age to Modernity, skipping four of the six perioids completely.

And when I say “Stone Age”, I particularly mean the Late Stone Age, or Neolithic. Neolithic people didn’t have metal technology, but they were a far shot from being cave men. The Neolithic begins with the development and rise of agriculture, when people stopped wandering around hunting for food, but settled down in farming communities. And those could get quite sophisticated, with the Inca and Aztecs being great examples of how much you can do without metal technology. Conveniently for us, the move towards agriculture took place about 8,000 BC, which means from the start of human civilization to now it has been roughly 10,000 years. Always a good guideline for considering how much time passes between different periods in your fictional world.

Making a fictional world that is based on Antiquity is relatively easy. Instead of English, French, and German knights, you use the Romans and Greeks as your baseline, and most people are already very familiar with them, even when they don’t really have any interest in history and archeology. But when you go further back, things get more difficult. There are some general ideas of the Babylonians and Egyptians floating around in the public consciousness, but those tend to be almost entirely limited to the royal palaces. How the world outside the royal cities looked is known only to relatively few people with a special interest in that topic. People like me, haha! So let me now (finally) share with you my thoughts how you can make a fictional world feel distrinctively different from one based on the Middle Ages or Antiquity by using life in the Bronze Age as a reference for how people could and did live in reality.

  • River Civilizations: The great Bronze Age civilizations that dominated the world for thousands of miles around were located primarily in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and eastern China. This wasn’t random, but for one very good reason. Which is big rivers and a subtropical climate. If you imagine these four regions on a map, they all pretty much line up on the same general latitude. If you look over to America, you have Mexico, where we find the Aztecs and Maya. This is a wonderful climate for agriculture because you get a lot of sunlight and warm temperatures, while at the same time it’s very easy to get plenty of water from the river onto fields right on the shores. If you want to make big fantasy Bronze Age cultures, these are the places to put them.
  • Boat Travel: Today we think of rivers and seas as border between regions, but in the prehistoric and ancient world, they were the connections between cities where all the travel and trade took place. There were very few roads and the Roman Highway network in Antiquity was absolutely revolutionary. Without roads trasporting goods by cart doesn’t work well and is really slow, and pack animals can’t really carry a lot. A big boat or ship can carry huge amounts of cargo and requires only very little work to move. If you want something transported, you would do it by boat. And since the cities already were on the big rivers near the crops fields, any place worth traveling to was already connceted to the water travel network. A ship can also go 24 hours a day without stopping, while both people on foot and horse need a lot of rest. So any long distance travel would be by boat.
  • Hill Forts: If your city is not in the middle of a huge plain (like Egypt or Mesopotamia) it’s most probably on top of a hill. Climbing uphill while people above are shoting arrows down from behind a palisade is really something no warrior wants to have to do. You’re slow, out in the open, can’t really shove moveable wooden walls in front of you, and your arrows have a much shorter reach. And if you make it to the top, you have to get over the palisade while exhausted. A fortress on top of a hill is just brilliant and people have been using them all over the world for thousands of years. When you can get hill that has some sides that are too steep to climb in armor, even better. You only have to worry about attacks from one or two sides, where you can put all your archers. Very often you have a castle right at the top, where the king or chief lives, and the main village or town slightly below it, with a second wall going around the whole thing. The city of the Rohirim in The Lord of the Rings is a wonderful example. But the same principle was also used for much larger cities with huge stone walls.
  • Priest Kings: In European culture, we are familiar with the concept that a king is in power because his family was chosen by God to rule. But that’s really a rather “recent” development and for most of Europes history kings were chosen from a pool of qualified candidates by the other high ranking nobles, not because God picked them before they were born. Instead, the connection between the king and the gods was a rather different one. Christianity is a bit unusual among religions that it started as being concerned entirely with getting your individual soul to heaven and didn’t really deal with your personal relationship to the world around you. Most other religions do and have plenty of rituals to maintain harmony with all the gods and spirits of the world, many of which are performed daily, so they are done at home by the family instead of a professional ordained priest. Very often the person in charge is the head of the household, who will be succeeded by his oldest son. In addition for rites for the family, there are also rites for the village, for the clan, and even the whole kingdom. And the head of family for the kingdom is the king. For everything that concerns the kingdom as a whole, the king represent all his people in front of the gods. His own transgressions will lead to punishments that will hit the whole kingdom, and he is also responsible for the misdeeds of all the people in his lands. This is obviously a huge responsibility. In China, the belief developed that all disasters and unrest was the result of the Emperor failing to perform his priestly duties correctly. When that happened, Heaven would show its displeasure through great calamities as a sign that the Emperor better get his act together, or the people have to replace him. In Japan, the Emperors religious duties became so big that eventually his role became that of a priest entirely and all the government work fell to a prime minister. Ruling the land and leading the army were among the kings main duties, but their role as head priest for the kingdom was just as important.
  • Sacrifice: For some reason Christianity was never big on sacrifices and Islam didn’t pick it up either. When the idea came up that rich people could clear away all their sins with a hefty donation to the church, many priests were so outraged that it led to the Reformation and the church splitting apart. (And even those who stayed in the Catholic church abandoned that practice, since it was admitedly very shady.) So in almost all fantasy settings inspired by the European Middle Ages, you don’t see any sacrificing either. But almost everywhere else in the world, sacrifices to the god where a huge deal. You didn’t go to the temple and ask the priest to bless you for whatever task you want to accomplish. To show that you really mean it, you brought a sacrifice. Be it food, treasure, animals, or people. Maybe just a fraction of a daily wage, or a huge fortune. But if you want the favor of the gods, you really had to bring sacrifices of some sort. Something to note is that usually the sacrifice was not destroyed when you gave it to the priests. Even when you had an animal killed for the gods, it wouldn’t be burned but eaten and when someone made a really big sacrifice, there usually would be a big feast. So the difference between sacrifice and donation to the temple could be a bit blurry. Giving a whole animal to a god usually meant really serious business.
  • Amulets: An amulet is an object that can protect against harm and misfortune through an inherent property of the material. If you have the thing, it works. It does not need to be enchanted or blessed, or turned on or anything like that. In a fictional world, it can be pretty much anything you can think of. Special stones, dried herbs, a tooth or claw of an animal, or a rune or symbol painted or carved into an object. In the Middle Ages they would be heathen superstition (though that didn’t stop people from still believing in them), but for a prehistoric setting, I would use them plenty.
  • Bronze Weapon and Armor: Pretty obvious, but worth to note. Both the Greeks and Romans primarily used steel and so did most of the other people they had dealing with. But a thousand years earlier steel wasn’t really around as a useful material and bronze was the metalic material to go with. Have everyone or just a large number of people running around with bronze weapons and bronze armor, and it will already feel quite different as a fantasy world. But make sure to limit those weapons and armor to types that were actually made from bronze. Fancy plate armor and two-handed swords wasn’t really possible until people developed good types of steel in the late Middle Ages.
  • No Paper: While people have been writing documents for a very long time, it usually wasn’t on paper. Carving in stone was only for things that were meant to be big and last for centuries, but carving in clay was much more easy and quicker. Papyrus is similar to paper, but still requires a lot of labor, so it’s one of the deluxe writing materials. In other parts of the world people wrote on thin strips of wood or palm leaves, which then could be laced together with string so you could roll them up just like paper. Strips of bamboo wood have the advantage of being pretty durable, while dried leaves always had the trouble of having to be copied when the material got too old.

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