On the Origin of Another Species

Some while ago I wrote a blog explaining some of the influences behind the construction of the Anakim – the species of human I created for my Under the Northern Sky trilogy. The final book, The Cuckoo, has just been released in the US and Canada, which seems as good a time as any to examine some of the other influences.

The books are set in Erebos – an alternate version of Dark Age Europe, in which multiple species of human have survived. Uneasily rubbing shoulders with the Anakim, and the modern humans with which we are familiar, live the Unhieru.

Brilliant, indolent, beautiful and feral, I loved creating them. There’s no spoilers below, but beware, you will find some serious anthropological nerdery.

Some atmospheric art from the highly talented Jago Silver, the Unhieru looming over all

The primary inspiration for the Anakim was (very loosely) the Neanderthal, and in the same way, the spark for the Unhieru was provided by an extinct species of giant ape: Gigantopithecus. Little is known about this, perhaps the largest member of the ape family, as only very partial remains have been recovered. However, from the size of those remains, it appears to have been enormous. Its teeth also suggest a diet adapted to fruits and vegetation, rather than meat, and this gave me the very basic starting points for the Unhieru: giants, who were mostly vegetarian. This has more consequences than you might think.

With only limited meat, you are required to spend an awful lot of the day eating and digesting vegetation in order to extract the necessary calories. Gorillas (mostly vegetarian) feed about 8 hours per day, contrasted with less than 4 hours for modern humans. So we had another essential characteristic: the Unhieru would be – to Anakim eyes – lazy, as they are required to spend so much time eating and digesting.

They still needed to be clever, in order to be worthy adversaries, but this too is a challenge with a diet low in meat. Limited meat requires a big gut to properly extract calories from plant matter, and due to something called the Expensive Tissue Hypothesis, it’s widely supposed that it’s impossible to have a big gut and a big brain in the same body (you just can’t get enough calories to sustain them at the same time). So how could did the Unhieru buck this trend, and develop a big brain?

In humans, this was probably first achieved by incorporating more meat into the diet, until ancient hominins grew intelligent enough to develop fire. This allows you to digest your food outside the body, allowing you a smaller gut, and more energy to be diverted to a larger brain. But the Unhieru, we already know, aren’t adapted to eat much meat, so they needed an alternative to make that first leap towards fire.

Fruit-trees seemed the answer. Small fruits are evolved to attract birds, who can spread the seeds enclosed within, but large fruits (such as apples) appear to have first evolved as a means of attracting the megafauna so prevalent before the end of the Ice Age. The Unhieru are certainly megafauna, and I thought that one way they could have evolved their large brains would be to become specialist frugivores, forming a symbiotic relationship with apple trees. They would prize the best areas for apple trees so highly that they warred over them (much as modern chimpanzees do), eventually learning to nurture the trees, and select the best and most productive ones. And they would grow together, the apples becoming sweeter and denser sources of energy, the Unhieru cleverer.

All this selection, over thousands of years and without cross pollination from other apple species, would probably have unintended consequences too. By the time we meet the Unhieru in The Spider, it is clear they are a failing race. Their trees have become too inbred, and have little defence to parasitic mistletoe, which is slowly choking their way of life.

But they linger on, because they became clever enough to develop that other essential technology: fire. And that gave them the final mental boost required to adopt pastoralism: the way of life that keeps them clinging on, into the world of The Spider.

This last development was inspired by the Odyssey, and it’s description of the giant Cyclopes. They are said to be shepherds, who know nothing of agriculture or metalwork, but are:

Men overweening in pride, who plundered their neighbours continuously…

And:

Neither assemblies for council have they, nor appointed laws, but they dwell on the peaks of lofty mountains in hollow caves

I’ve often wondered if old legends such as these might have their roots in ancient cultural memories of other species of human. This may seem improbable, but cultures are undoubtedly capable of preserving memories for many thousands of years. There are numerous Native American tales which speak of a monstrous animal, featuring a fifth arm between its shoulders, which it could use as dextrously as we use our own, and slept by leaning against trees. These memories are so consistent that they are widely interpreted as a millennia-old recollection of the days when they shared their land with the woolly mammoth.

There are also aborigine tribes in Australia who can name landmarks which have been underwater since a rise in sea levels 13,000 years ago. I find such ancient knowledge utterly compelling, and wonder what other memories might have entered our modern consciousness, masquerading as just stories. Maybe some of them have their origins in something more. So the Unhieru drew from the Cyclopes, becoming semi-parasitic on other humans, never needing to produce their own metal because they found it so easy to take from their neighbours. And besides, they lack the social order to produce such a complex technology.

But just as the Anakim have their iron-rich bone armour, the Unhieru have some unusual characteristics too. One of these is the feeling of dread they are able to command in those nearby. This idea came from some research which suggested infrasound – noises with a frequency too low for human ears to detect – may precipitate untraceable terror, even when it cannot be consciously detected. This struck me particularly when writing The Spider. At the time, I was experiencing some particularly intense and unpleasant anxiety, and found it all too easy to imagine a crippling, nameless dread that seems to come from nowhere.

I thought perhaps it would not be so outlandish to imagine that the Unhieru could produce infrasound of just the right pitch to elicit terror in those nearby. It would certainly be a useful adaptation, and again, it didn’t seem so impossible to me.

Living human beings can do some remarkable things. There is evidence that babies produce signals in their saliva, which are detected by receptors in the mother’s breast during suckling, and enable the milk to be tailored directly to the babies’ needs. Compared to that, making a noise that elicits terror seems relatively straightforward.

It is notable too that the Unhieru have two tiers of males. One is larger, maned, golden-eyed and socially high-ranking. The other is smaller, rangier and brown-eyed. This was inspired by orangutans, which have just such a system of two-tiered males. Only one of them (the rarer, larger ‘flanged male’ with their distinctive broad faces) is attractive to females. The vast majority of male orangutans belong to the other tier of males, who are much smaller, rangier and less appealing.

You may ask how, if the vast majority of male orangutans are unattractive to females they are able to reproduce (then again maybe not, as modern humans seem to struggle with a similar problem). The answer is not pleasant, but the concept of a two-tiered system of males with alternative mating strategies seemed an interesting one to explore. In the case of the Unhieru, it is with material provision that the smaller males are able to win favour with the females: by demonstrating that they can provide enough resources to support offspring (even if this means stealing off the larger males).

Albion at the start of The Cuckoo, with a rendering of an Unhieru helmet bottom left

There’s much more to the Unhieru, and why they are as they are. But perhaps that’s a tale for another time. So if you’ll forgive the gear-shift, the last thing I’ll cover in this post is a return to the Anakim, and one of the features of their society about which I’ve had most questions: The Academy. This is a sisterhood of historians who dedicate their lives to memorising the past, and distilling the lessons from it. I’ve described previously why the Anakim cannot write, and why they would still have needed a formal means of recalling the past. The Academy filled this gap, recalling thousands of historic poems, much as the Iliad and the Odyssey were conveyed orally by the pre-literate Greeks.

But why make it a sisterhood?

When I began studying biological anthropology, one of the first mysteries we encountered was why women evolved such a significant post-reproductive lifespan. After the menopause, women are unable to produce further children, and yet usually go on living for decades. As they are unable to pass on their genes during this time, it is difficult to see how or why this capacity evolved. In fact, such a long post-reproductive lifespan is nearly unheard of in the animal kingdom.

There are many competing answers, but one of the leading ones is the Grandmother Hypothesis, which suggests that post-reproductive women (one of those flattering descriptions so typical of biological anthropology) are still playing a critical role in the survival of their own genes. One famous study of juvenile rhesus monkeys found that those with surviving grandmothers are significantly more likely to survive to adulthood, than those without. A grandmother is still therefore helping perpetuate her genes, even when she is no longer reproducing.

This is likely to be more true for human societies than for rhesus monkeys. In hunter-gatherers, older women contribute a disproportionate amount to group calories (knowing when, where and how to find the best wild foods, having the skills to gather them efficiently, and requiring relatively little of them in return). In a manner familiar to many modern parents, they also provide the extra childcare so critical for highly dependent offspring. It’s therefore easy to see how a surviving grandmother bestows a fine advantage on her grandchildren and their chances of survival, but the Grandmother Hypothesis remains controversial. Critics argue that, as each grandchild only has a quarter of the grandmother’s DNA, this survival advantage would have to be massive in order for it to confer a selective advantage.

However, I think this underappreciates another factor – what we might call the Matriarch Effect. Elephant herds are led by a matriarch, who carries with her memories of past troubles and how the group overcame them. She may remember the one watering hole which does not dry out, even during droughts not witnessed for 50 years, and so preserve her entire herd. The continuity of that knowledge is priceless. In ancient human societies, some of the oldest living people will likely have been women, as they are past the dangerous reproductive years, and less likely to be involved in the risky business of hunting and warfare. To a nomadic hunter-gatherer society, the knowledge they held of past times would have been utterly indispensable.

The Academy is a nod to the Grandmother Hypothesis, and the knowledge of elders that has preserved so many groups in times of need. It is also a reminder as to what these books are ultimately about: exploring some of the underlying truths about human beings. What is inherent, what is learned. We have come so far, and built so much, but some things will not change. This is one of the lessons of the Unhieru. Try as we might, some of our behaviours are a matter of hardware, rather than software. We ignore them at our peril.

4 responses to “On the Origin of Another Species

  1. Just finished The Cuckoo. I loved this trilogy. I have question though, about the ending. I don’t want to leave any spoilers here. But I have thoughts about it. What made you choose to go the route you did in regards to how the whole story ends?

    • Delighted you enjoyed! Its difficult to explain what’s behind the ending without spoilers, but I’m planning to write another spoilery post talking about it very soon. Watch this space!

      Warm regards
      Leo

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