Cultural Bias

Well, I haven’t got around to redrawing my map, so more cultural information it is – this time, I’ll be looking at a culture which won’t be directly visited by the protagonists during my story, but will have a strong influence.

Over the last year I have watched a number of television programmes exploring a little more about other hominids, such as the Neanderthals.  I learnt a number of things I never knew about them before, which I’ll go into in a minute.  Especially interesting was the information that there were apparently surviving family groups as recently as 30,000 years ago.  Looking a little closer at the reasons for their extinction, it seems that the main reason they died out may well have been coincidence – homo sapiens’ expansion reached Europe at roughly the same time as forests started giving way to grassland, meaning our persistence/projectile focussed hunting style out competed their ambush hunting style.  It strikes me that, had the forests not receded or if species overlap had been postponed until the era of agriculture, there could well have been two species of hominids around today – or perhaps that should be sub-species, as evidence of interbreeding seems to be pointing towards them being not entirely separate from homo sapiens.  I thought they would be a pretty cool addition to my fantasy universe.

Anyway, let’s see what they were like.

Far from being stupid, as the caveman stereotype goes, Neanderthals actually had a brain case fractionally larger on average than our own.  According to one of the experts used by the BBC, one of the areas which was larger was the occipital lobe, an area involved in the processing of vision.  Of course, this could mean a number of things.  They might have had better resolution (making out smaller things at a longer distance), better night vision, better colour distinguishment, increased number of frames per second – I doubt we’ll ever know.  All interesting possibilities for a fantasy writer though.  They had modern-looking hyoid bones and the same version of FOXP2, a gene closely linked to language, as modern humans, which strongly suggests they had language.  How complex this was is debatable – our necks are held more vertical than theirs, which I understand allows more effective production of glottal stops, the sound indicated by the hyphen in ‘uh-oh’ as well as in many other words.    Additionally, the tools they produced were just as effective as those by early man.  The implication is that they were just as intelligent as modern humans, merely different.

The real differences lie in the body make-up.  Though populations varied as in modern humans, it appears that Neanderthals were of roughly similar height to early man at about 5’5″-5’7″ – on average they were an inch or so shorter, but with a greater sexual dimorphism, so males were perhaps a bit taller while females were shorter.  Today, human population averages range between 5’2″-6’1″ for men and 4’10”-5’7″ for women.  (Also interesting is that Homo heidelbergensis, a common ancestor, stood around 6′ tall on average – equal to some of the tallest populations in the world today – with some populations even standing ~7′ tall!  Talk about intimidating!)  Neanderthal skeletons reveal what was both their biggest advantage and disadvantage over us: they were stacked.  Big barrel chests, huge muscle insertion points on dense bones, the longer ones bowed by the forces they had to support.  I’m not saying these guys were chimpanzee strong, but the suggestion is that they had up to twice as much muscle mass of normal humans, or about 30% extra weight – perhaps the equivalent of human wrestlers or body builders.  Their bones show healed injuries that match those see in rodeo professionals, suggesting they tackled large, angry animals on a regular basis.  There also may be some evidence that their power was of a more explosive type as opposed to sustained effort

Of course, all this muscle mass was also their biggest disadvantage – they needed twice as much food to support all this extra tissue.  They lived in smaller groups, more widely dispersed, and would probably have been hit harder by the lean years.

So, to the culture.

With the onset of agriculture, they would have been able to form larger communities, though the population density would still have to have been less than us at a corresponding level of development – I’m thinking a land with fewer cities and more village/hamlet-sized developments to reduce the amount of food which needs to be moved around.

With the difficulties forming complex words, the language may become more monosyllabic, perhaps with tonal changes to meaning to make up for the short words such as in Chinese.  An oriental base for their culture to go with the language would help to reinforce the idea that these people have an ancient culture but not a primitive one.  Chinese and especially Japanese styles are well represented in fantasy and I want this book to avoid as many of the normal cultures as possible, so I’ll look into Thai culture as a base, with some Nepalese for the mountain areas.  Just to mix things up a little, I’ll mix in some Mayan too, though not the obvious human sacrifice element – that would compromise the aim of making them just as civilised as other humans.

In recent times there would surely have been armed clashes with humans.  There has always been mistrust between different races in real life, so how much more would humans have for these physically imposing, coarse featured people who may recall folklore monsters, or the Neanderthals have for these skinny, leggy people who move into an area and breed like rabbits, taking up all the natural resources?  On martial styles, I suspect their build would lend more to wrestling and throws, and with long, powerful arms and shorter legs I see strikes seeing more use than kicks.  Powerful hands could lend themselves to some quite nasty gripping and tearing techniques that recall a more savage side, too.  While physically much more powerful, they would almost certainly be outnumbered by humans, facing a foe who would be more inclined to sit at a distance and fire arrows than engage in close combat.  On the plus side, fewer warriors means each one could have better equipment.  At range, their massive  upper body strength and better eyesight lend themselves well to using much larger bows than were ever common on the battlefields of Earth.  To counter their disadvantages in speed over distance, cavalry may play a larger part – also easier with fewer warriors to provide horses for.  For when they did get close, they would probably want a shield to protect themselves from arrows, spears and javelins, and some kind of weapon that could both be used quickly and take advantage of their raw strength.  Axes and maces were the traditional way to deliver powerful blows, but they could also be slower than other weapons, and axes in particular could have the (slightly nasty) disadvantage of sticking in the person you’ve just killed – not what you want when you’re outnumbered and his mate is right next to him.  I suspect something like the Chinese dao/war sword would work well, giving the ability to make quick slashes as well as massive cleaving strikes:

Wouldn't like to see that coming at me...

Huh, I’m well over 1000 words again and I only just got started on the actual culture part.  Oh well, I’m sure I’ll get around to putting more up soon.  In the meantime, I really need to get on and do a bit on my map so I can do a post about that…



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