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Abyssia: Peoples Thumbnail photo of orbital shot of Pacifica on Abyssia, a model of Earth turned inside out. Click to enlarge. Thumbnail photo of orbital shot of Atlantis on Abyssia, a model of Earth turned inside out. Click to enlarge.

by Chris Wayan, 2010

for Huxley, the Bishop, and the Dodo

Abyssia home - down to map - building Abyssia - geology & geography - critters & cultures - the clash of names - more worlds? Planetocopia!

Overview - Aeps - Pitians - Aeps & Angels - Mammals: Foxtaurs, Equi, Leptaurs - Reefs

You can deduce much about Abyssia's evolutionary history from space; blue and green! Few red deserts or gold savannas, and no white ice. Abyssia's wet. Small continents, lands broken by inland seas. What's that do to life and its chances of evolving intelligence? Two obvious effects:

  1. Abyssia's rich in islands and mini-continents--nicely insulated Petri dishes. With no ice at the poles, sea levels won't fluctuate much either; land bridges will be rare. So land animals will often be endemic to a single island; at most, a cluster. Expect unearthly diversity but modest populations. If something can evolve in Abyssian conditions, it will--somewhere. So expect many candidates for civilization--but not in contact or competition. No way to meet!

    The quarantine breaks down only late in the game: with sailors. Once even a tiny colony of intelligent creatures builds the first decent canoe, it will spread. This will happen, somewhere, eventually; and it only has to happen once.

    The real question is: in the long epic settling of Abyssia's archipelagos, will it happen more than once? Will these sailors meet different boats full of other species?

    High orbital shot of Atlantis on Abyssia, a model of Earth turned inside out. Click to enlarge.
  2. Most land is maritime, and most mountains are too low to cast significant rainshadows. Forests dominate, prairie and savanna are less common than on Earth, and deserts are downright rare. So if tool-using intelligence arises from a savanna environment, as it did on Earth, opportunities on Abyssia will be limited--the only extensive nurseries are west Pacifica, Agassiz, central Filipinia and southwest Atlantis. Africa alone has more grassland than all Abyssia!

    But is our path the only path? Savanna efficiently condenses sunlight into herds of grazers and their associated predators, but it may not be savanna specifically that's needed. Maybe the womb that intelligence needs is any rich biome full of energy, interaction, opportunity--and trouble.

Trouble? Yes. Six essential nutrients nourish a civilization, and one is trouble:
  1. Brains. These burn a lot of fuel, so intelligence must be a practical advantage to the owner! So are big brains rare? Surprisingly, no. Quite a large fraction of big creatures evolve big brains. Before the wave of human-caused extinction, 50-100 species may have had intelligences in the ape-to-human range, and even today there are a few dozen: at least five apes (one naked), up to a dozen parrot species, as many more cetaceans, three elephant species (two African, one Indian), several wolf species, half a dozen ravens, giant octopi and squid, several bears, llamas, hippos, and several non-cetacean marine mammals. Brains cost, yes (mere dozens out of millions of species with small brains, or none); but the cost's not prohibitive.
  2. Sociability. Solitary creatures don't easily pass on their insights. Orangutans and giant squid are smart creatures, but may be too solitary ever to build civilizations.
  3. Ready communication. Most intelligent creatures--cetaceans, wolves, elephants, parrots, ravens--are rich, varied vocalizers, and octopi/squid may use color patterns and gesture. Apes have the worst communication hardware in the bunch! And yet one ape lineage did manage to rewire its throat and lips for much more complex sounds. This suggests speech in some form won't be a bottleneck.
  4. Hands, or trunks, or tentacles, or something that makes manipulation not just possible but cost-free, so play and experimentation are common. Abyssian land animals have a centauroid bodyplan, leaving forepaws free for manipulation, in contrast to Earth, where forepaws often serve as both hands and feet--and aren't ideal for either. Apes and ravens are smart, but not as dexterous as humans.
  5. A home rich in potential tools and materials. Rainforests, savannas, and coral reefs have lots of toys; an icecap, the open sea, or the abyssal floor, not so many.
  6. Trouble! A need for tools, teaching, social organization--culture. What creates that need? Vulnerability to predators, or resources only exploitable via tools and/or co-operation. This may be the tightest bottleneck! Humans needed tools and fire, not to be top predators--that was a frill--but simply not to be prey. Compare us to elephants. Except for poachers, nothing stalks them--not twice, anyway. And I don't think it's chance elephants use few tools, despite dexterity and smarts in the human range. Did they need to?

With these factors in mind, let's consider a few evolutionary paths to Abyssian intelligence and how they may interact and contrast: first avians (flightless, then flying), then mammals, all centauroid on Abyssia, then molluscs: a six-limbed tree-climbing squid; we'll end with the horrible parable of Clipperton.

Intro - Aeps, or, the Fall from Bird Heaven - Pitians - Aeps & Angels - Mammals: Foxtaurs, Equi, Leptaurs - Reefs

Quite by chance, most Abyssian vertebrates are six- not four-limbed; it's insects that are (mostly) tetrapodal here. Why not? After all, they don't need as much support due to the cube-square law. I'm presupposing this largely to point out that the bodyplans of megafauna are partly chance; look how sharply the mix changed when mammals replaced dinosaurs. From many bipeds to few! Were conditions really that different, or was it just a mammalian quirk that they stuck to as they grew?

On Abyssia, early vertebrates happened to evolve with three limb-pairs and have mostly stuck with a winning formula. Yes, the forepaws are small in many species, but they're so, er, handy, for grooming at least, that few creatures have abandoned them entirely. Aepyornis maximimus (a giant flightless extinct bird) modified for Abyssia: with small forelimbs and hands. Color sketch by Chris Wayan, based on a grayscale drawing by Acrocynus (from Wikipedia; creative commons copyright, so please do not use commercially).

Abyssian birds follow the basic six-limbed body plan; but that doesn't mean you'd notice much difference in the average songbird. They simply have small forelimbs tucked under wings or folded over their breasts; limbs typically evolved to snatch insects, groom feathers, weave shelter, pick fruit... and wield tools.

Two factors have so far blocked Terran birds from building civilizations, despite high intelligence, sociability, and communications skills.

  1. Hand-feet are awkward; not only must you compromise between two shapes and functions, you have to balance on one leg to free up a hand. Stand firmly, use your beak, and you can't easily see what you're doing. Or what the local predators are doing...
  2. Flight limits absolute size, and thus brainweight. It's true that birdbrains are way more efficient than mammals'--but growing much past the size of the largest parrots starts to make flight difficult. And that's dangerous, most places on Earth.
Sketch by Chris Wayan of an alternate Andalgalornis (a large extinct flightless bird) with small forelimbs and hands; based on a grayscale drawing by J. Conway (from Wikipedia; creative commons copyright, so please do not use commercially).

But not necessarily on Abyssia! The huge flightless birds that tend to evolve on Earth's loneliest islands will also tend to appear on Abyssia's deeply isolated landmasses. They'll lack both the above limitations. Huge birds like our Aepyornis or Andalgalornis, but with small forehands, are the most likely candidates for intelligence on Abyssia. They'll evolve on isolated lands like the Andean Archipelago or Scotia or the Greek Isles or even chilly Lena, not the huge, predator-infested continents of Pacifica or Agassiz.

It may be that Basque fishing boats do not discover the Greek Isles, or found Lima; it's quite possible that feathered Peruvians, Greeks or even huge, dust-mop arctic Lenans (ooh! tweety-bird Vikings!) build the first ships--and discover the world.

For now let's postulate that lots of Aeps (sorry, couldn't resist) will evolve to personhood on widely scattered isles, and that some of these diverse birds will eventually meet. It'll be a shock. "Awk!" (or at least "Auk!" I just hope it doesn't end as the auks did.)

An "Awk!" of consternation, revulsion, or delight? Who knows? An Aepish Shakespeare (that upstart crow!) may write a Romeo and Juliet starring young lovers not from two estranged clans, but two species.

Here's a range-map of a dozen or so possible species; I'm trying to rough-match names and characteristics to Earth birds, living or extinct, from the same regions and similar climates. With teeny-weeny adjustments. Like thousand-mile displacements, and civilization, and ships...

Obviously this map will get revised a lot--even with a dozen species, I may be indulging in spurious unification ("species lumping") out of laziness (possibly intellectual, definitely artistic--I don't wanna draw a HUNDRED flightless birds). At least, I'm suspicious. Some species here seem to have spread across stormy sea-gaps I'd find it hard to navigate.

But it's a start.

Map of the ranges of flightless, sentient avians on Abyssia, a world-building experiment. Click a feature to go there.
Anyway, out of hundreds of such island experiments, I think it's safe to assume at least a dozen-plus may achieve sentience. Just too many factors going for them--size, brains, longevity, dexterity. They sort into several groups, shaped by the environment of their home islands: An emu, an ostrichlike intelligent bird on Abyssia; sketch by Wayan. Click to enlarge.


Much like our ostrich, emu and rhea--all with that odd physique Disney mocked in Fantasia--the long snaky neck atop a wide, flattened torso like a flying saucer, hopping around on bare, muscular ballerina legs.

Running away may be a seductive detour from intelligent problem-solving--it is for lots of us humans, after all--but I'm betting that with small forehands plucking fruit, leaves and twigs, these folks will slip into tool use not for hunting but for storage and transport--woven pouches and baskets able to carry eggs and berries without crushing them. Early on they'll learn the value of a stout staff for self-defense when running away fails.

Runners will prefer warm climates (widespread on Abyssia) and open country (not so common; it's a rainy place). My best guess is one such species will dominate the dry side of each minicontinent that has one, but won't readily settle the rainy side. It's understandable--their feathers are largely adapted for display; not waterproof.

Though less agressive than humans, they may resemble us mentally; after all, their natal savanna is much like ours.
An kasowar, an intelligent long-necked bird with hands, on Abyssia; sketch by Wayan. Click to enlarge.


Evolving on swampy or densely forested islands, these are slenderer than the emu group, more heronlike; variously crested and wattled and brightly colored. They're mostly herbivorous-leaning omnivores. Plenty of plant food in their wet green habitats.

They're leggy, but they don't run away (woods and swamps trip you up & bog you down)--they stand their ground and snap back. Their character's modeled on our cassowary--feisty, intelligent, curious.

This group prefer warm rainforests--in ready supply across Abyssia's tropics. Their feathers shed rain better than the savanna runners, and while not utterly waterproof, help them to swim reasonably well; they're confident sailors.

Well, but they're confident everything.

They may be human in aggression level, but rather more solitary. Though flightless, remember thay have hands; some may be able to climb trees like our forest apes. Alone among the flightless birds, these will think in three-dimensional webs, not limited to linear paths on a mere plain of possibilities. Such pattern-masters may come into their own only when Abyssia advances to the point it really needs starship navigators, climate modelers, polyphonic composers, or (highest calling of all, in any civilization) librarians. Cassowaries map the data jungle!
An emu, an ostrichlike intelligent bird on Abyssia; sketch by Wayan. Click to enlarge.


Huge, beaky and big-headed, modeled on extinct hunters like our Diatryma, Brontornis, Titanis and Andalgalornis. I've assumed that the ones who rose to sentience were omnivores not obligate carnivores; and the invention of weapons slowly weeded out hotheads and idiots. Diverse in temperament today--depending on the island, you may meet anything from fierce-but-disciplined to calm (Zen allosaurs?)

Their rough-and-tumble hunting past means all these birds have solid or near-solid bones like mammals. They don't need to conserve weight. Solid bones and little fat (not needed with their thick feather insulation) give them one definite disadvantage in modern Abyssia, where sail's the thing; most of these folks can't swim. Not a skills problem; they're too dense. Go right to the bottom.

Such giants will prefer subtropical-to-cool climates--equatorial or desert heat is hard to take. Their ability to tolerate snow at all sets them apart from most Abyssians and gives them an edge in settling cool-temperate lands like the Antarctic Ring-- Weddellia, Morningtonia, Antipodia...

Still, I'm not sure exactly which islands will host birds of this sort, and which give rise a species in our next group...
An aep or 'elephant bird', a huge ostrichlike intelligent bird on Abyssia; sketch by Wayan. Click to enlarge.


Up to 3 meters tall (10'), these are much like our extinct Aepyornis (Elephant Bird) or Moa. Let's call them Aeps. Long-necked but massive-bodied; a monster goose with land-legs? These may be herbivores, but they don't need to run! Like our elephants, they're just too big for most predators to hunt. And by chance, their native islands lacked a really big predator. So they'll be calm, confident folk who have trouble even conceiving of enemies.

Like the last group, these 'aeps' will prefer subtropical-to-cool climates--they're so big that equatorial or desert heat is hard to take. Their ability to tolerate snow at all sets them apart from most Abyssians and gives them an edge in settling cool-temperate lands like the Antarctic Ring-- Weddellia, Morningtonia, Antipodia...


A few remnant populations will live on just one or two small islands. Small in size (island dwarfism), unaggressive and trusting in temperament, these folk are just chance survivors whose homes happened not to be in the way of any more aggressive peoples during the more barbaric, exploitive part of the Age of Sail. Well, at least that's true of the shy, gentle DODO, endemic only to Vema and nearby islets.
A scholarly auk, a shy nearly-flightless bird on Abyssia; sketch by Wayan. Click to enlarge.

But the AUK, native to the lonely islands north of Azorea, didn't survive just by chance; they long ago found a deepwater refuge like our Hawai'i, and for centuries, until the Pirate Age was dead, and the Hard-Sell Age fell (after the worldwide hat boycott--Abyssia may look low-tech, but these people aren't fools)--well, until the storm of opportunism faded and Abyssians grew up, no non-Auk ever even heard of the Greek Isles. Perhaps I should add Sneaky to the map's personality spectrum.

I've also mapped a few non-sentient flightless birds just to hint at the full range:
The moosebird, a flightless bird with antlers on Abyssia; collage by Wayan. Click to enlarge.

  1. THE MOOSEBIRD: Bowers Island, large but cold and windy, 400 km north of the Aleutian Coast, has about the wretchedest climate in the northern hemisphere. It's lonely enough never to have acquired large predators. Female moosebirds have antlerlike headgear--presumably some sort of simple crest or wattles, originally--but by now they really do resemble antlers. Functionally, too: females bonk heads to compete for mates (the males make up for their combat-exemption by doing most of the incubation; not uncommon in Terran flightless birds). Slow-moving, trusting, endearingly inept (bonk-drunk?), they survive only because even fishing boats rarely visit. Moosebirds seem well adapted for Kodiak Island to the northeast, too, but there are no signs they ever lived there.
  2. THE NENE: on two islands in the southeastern Hawaiian Sea, Powers and Wood, live large flightless geese called Nenes. Their soft, questioning call really sounds like someone trying, without shouting, to locate a lost aunt: "Nene? Nene?" This pathetic, lost quality has served them well. Foxtaur sailors of the freshwater sea rarely killed and ate them; too much like killing a lost pup. But rats got onto the islands and ate their eggs; wild nenes are rare now. But a domesticated subspecies (it wasn't hard work!) is now common on farms all around the Hawaiian Sea.
  3. THE PENGUIN: Scott and Amundsen, the two lonely islands of the Antarctic--the ONLY lands of the Antarctic--are havens for big colonies of a strange flightless bird we have to call penguins, though they're larger than even our Emperors. But the lifestyle is recognizable and the shape almost identical. They're smart, maybe even sentient, but marine streamlining has deprived them of the manipulative forearms that helped lure other big-brained presentient species into tool use. Like dolphins, they've been cheated by the sea. It isn't just fire & smelting that water suppresses, but hands themselves!
Color pencil drawing by Dmitri Bogdanov of a giant flightless extinct bird, Titanis Walleri. (From Wikipedia; creative commons copyright, so please do not use commercially.) Altered by Chris Wayan to an alternate Titanis with smaller talons, a gracile build, and small forelimbs with hands. Photoshop sketch by Stanton Fink of a large flightless extinct bird,  Brontornis burmeisteri. From Wikipedia; creative commons copyright, so please do not use commercially.

Aristotle teased his contemporaries with this splendidly unhelpful definition of humanity: "What is Man? A biped without feathers." Undeniably true, undeniably not to the point. It teased generations of philosophers to define personhood by attributes of the mind. With my six points above, I've taken an earthier approach: my six, if they chanted in a Greek chorus, would answer Aristotle with "What is Man? A smart, talking, friendly, adept creature who creates--stories, monuments, science, art..."

But our Aep will be able to tease his or her contemporaries--of any species--with a distinctly Aristotelian definition that addresses real evolutionary pressures: "A flightless biped." (Forget the "featherless"; I doubt we'll be seeing any Naked Aeps. Plucked chickens aren't sexy; unsexy birds don't found nations.)

All it takes (in deep time, at least) to rule the Abyssian world, is to renounce the sky--and thus grow brains. So they'll have mythic tales of the Fall on Abyssia; but not from Eden, or innocence. From wings, and grace, and Heaven. And... stupidity.

Not that any this should surprise you. Abyssia, by its premise, is an upside-down, looking-glass, Alice sort of place. The dodo shall inherit the earth.

Line drawing of a gentlemanly Dodo with hands of mysterious origin; by John Tenniel, from ALICE IN WONDERLAND.
Or at least the islands, reefs and seas. Let mammalian centauroids browse and burrow the dry earth of the continental heart! It's Aepish sailors who map the world, and dominate trade, and transmit innovation. Who rules the waves rules the world.

This world, at least. But what about heaven? Not any particular theological heaven. Just the one you see when you look up. Is stupidity really the unavoidable price of flight?

Intro - Aeps - Angels of the Pit - Aeps & Angels - Mammals: Foxtaurs, Equi, Leptaurs - Reefs

High orbital shot of Pacifica and Agassiz on Abyssia, a model of Earth turned inside out. Click to enlarge.
A Torian, a small intelligent bird, on Abyssia. Paint sketch by Wayan. Click to enlarge.

The core Aepish myth will be the Fall from Flight. But there's a faint chance that a winged intelligence will evolve on certain invisible islands. Well, they're visible of course; but you won't have seen them as islands. In the geology section I've described how the islands and seamounts of Earth, inverted on Abyssia, form thousands of pit-lakes. Most of these are merely deep lakes with hotsprings, anoxic sulfurous depths, and a rude habit of farting fatal CO2 clouds when they're in a bad mood. Still, they're just deep volcanic lakes. Sometimes drinkable, sometimes dangerous, sometimes both. Not profoundly alien. Except...

In the deserts of Pacifica and Agassiz, the driest places on Abyssia, a few of these pits yawn three miles deep. Their lakes have receded until the evaporation off their shrunken faces drops to match their scant inflow. Modern Earth's closest equivalent, the Dead Sea, is just a few hundred meters down. These are thousands! Up to five kilometers below sea level.

And in their depths, on the shores of tiny briny seas, along creeks that are more waterfall than stream, life has adapted to what might as well be another planet entirely. Oven-heat, salty and alkaline soils, yet weirdly humid for a desert, with mild sun and little ultraviolet--you slowly bake but never sunburn in that hazy light. Strangest of all, air pressure rises down in these pits--up to twice as dense as at sea level.

Here, and here alone on Abyssia, the size-constraint on bird-intelligence is lifted; if there's social pressure toward larger brains and higher intelligence in the "handed" Abyssian equivalents of parrots or corvids, here the body can indulge it; the maximum flight-weight is double Earth's.

There is a mild counter-pressure: summer and winter, it's relentlessly hot here. But that can be solved by nocturnality or siestas, ranginess, pale colors, less down, or vulturelike baldness except on the vital wings and tail. Though plenty of normally feathered birds live in our hot deserts. Water and food, not temperature, are the limiting factors.
An Abyssian bird with saurian jaw and teeth.

Lake Tori, in the heart of the Pacifica Desert, is the deepest, largest pit I'm absolutely sure will BE a pit--and thus a possible home for such intelligent fliers. Huge Lake Pigafetta/Gordin/Alba to the south will have variable Sahelian rains, and those plus runoff from the nearby mountains will mean its pit, though the biggest on Abyssia, will be just 2-3 km deep.

So I think my fliers will first evolve five km down (16,500' below sea level!) in Tori Basin (Japanese for "bird"! How apt.) Here the air is densest and the smallest wings are needed. Then they'd colonize the big southern complex and adapt for thinner air--preparing them for sea-level flight. Pigafetta is an atmospheric halfway house!

My portrait above of a 5-kilo (11-lb) Torian woman as a sort of super-parrot with a quasi-human face isn't meant to be very realistic, but she does bring up a real question. Must all Abyssian birds have beaks, indeed look at all like Terran birds?
An Abyssian waterbird with saurian jaw and teeth.

Plenty of flying dinosaurs had teeth. Our birds don't for a reason: the impact at Chicxulub was so devastating, most creatures built to eat fresh food died in the 'impact winter' or the hot period after--the pulverized limestone caused a spike in CO2, and temperatures. Only a few small birds made it through cold and heat--presumably by eating seeds, the longest-lasting food.

That took beaks. Plant and meat eaters, with teeth, just didn't make it. Modern birds diversified, but even those eating berries, pondweed, bugs, fish, or carrion, all of whom could probably use saurian teeth and jaws, couldn't reverse-engineer them. Evolution lacks an undo button. So they modified beaks and made do.

But was the extinction here as severe? I'm skeptical. On Abyssia Chicxulub isn't coastal, but deep sea. Way less dust blocking sunlight or raising CO2 levels later. A worldwide tsunami and firestorms and blast waves, yes, killing most land animals, but a wider variety of small fliers might have survived these briefer scourges.

There's a rival theory that what really killed off the dinosaurs were the huge eruptions of the Deccan Traps--climate swings, CO2, sulfur (acid rain!) ash, lead, and mercury. Suppose this theory is correct; then Abyssia still comes out ahead. Here, the Deccan is miles deep; just another abyssal basalt plain. Deep-sea eruptions just don't do as much damage.

So either way... with smaller climate swings, more small Abyssian birds and mammals survived. Modern Abyssian birds could thus have teeth and other dinosaurian traits lost on Earth. And they've had eons to build further on that start. Facial muscles, lips, cheek pouches, external ears?

True, the Torian above looks awfully mammalian-faced (though not all that human; note the whiteless eyes, upturned snout and split upper lip) but her surreal mashup isn't quite as absurd as it seems. Many Abyssian birds, whether people (as above) or animals (waterbird, right) probably will have faces (and other features) we'd find rather un-avian.

And why not? They didn't all descend from our lineages.

Sketchmap of western Pacifica and the Mariana Mts on Abyssia, an alternate Earth whose relief has been inverted: heights are depths and vice versa.

There may be a couple of bigger pits nearly as deep as Tori--sometimes. During the present era, with no ice at the poles, temperature, rainfall and sealevels are all at their very highest and Tori is the only sure bet, but the much bigger Marcus Lakes to the east, toward Lake Wake (our Wake Island--another very deep pit, but almost certainly waterfilled), may be a maze of winding sea-level mesas and salt-lake-dappled basins anywhere from 1 to 4 km down. I'm guessing they're not too sunken during this wet era--they'll get some rains off the Hawaiian Sea, and likely be no more than a kilometer down. If the Hawaiian Sea's waterlevel gets high enough, it'll spill over and fill the Marcus complex.

SKetch of lake at foot of desert cliffs; a 19th-century watercolor of Egypt, tinted and tweaked by Chris Wayan to represent the Marcus Lakes in Pacifica, an Earth where high is low and low high.
Map of the Kermadec Mts and Tonga Desert of western Agassiz, a continent on Abyssia, an alternate Earth whose relief has been inverted: heights are depths and vice versa.

But Abyssia has occasional mild ice ages, when continental drift swings a mini-continent near a pole. A single modest icecap forms--a Greenland or a half-Antarctica. This lowers the sea level ten or twenty meters for some millions of years. The sea recedes and continental interiors dry out a bit. During such drier spells, the Marcus Lakes become a giant sinkhole-maze like Mars's Mariner Canyon, with saltlakes 3-4 km down.

And to the north, an even larger basin can appear: Lake Shatsky partly dries, splitting to become a couple of giant Dead Seas a kilometer or two down. The Shatsky basins are shallower, just a couple of kilometers, but huge--like our Caspian, if you siphoned it out.

In all eras, Tori has competition on the southern continent of Agassiz--in the western desert, Louisville Trough has some deep pits. The most promising is Currituck, in the north, 3.2 km deep--but like the Pigafetta complex, Lake Currituck gets some runoff--though not from seasonal rains but from snowmelt. The dry side of the high, snowy Kermadec Range is to the west. So I think the lake surface would be 3 km down--maybe less. The air in Tori will be at least 30% and maybe even 50% denser; easier to fly in. When it comes to pits, Pacifica has a clear lead.

In deep desert oases of this kind, a big intelligent flier could be considered island gigantism of a sort--if you see the pit as a sky-island in reverse, an island of supportive air in a sea of avian discouragement. Oasis gigantism!

Well, our wise bird wouldn't have to be gigantic; a wingspan of three or four meters perhaps, little wider than Terran albatrosses or condors, though I'm sure they'd be stubbier, with a bigger wing surface; a body weight of 10-15 kilos (22-33 lbs; African bustards this heavy can get off the ground, though they're not great fliers). That's plenty big enough to support a brain weighing 200 grams. Seem small? These aren't sloppy mammal neurons! A raven brain is under 20 grams and it reasons just as well as a 600-gram chimp brain. Better, if you ask the raven.

Once evolved, I don't think this tribe of birdbrains will be trapped in its air-womb forever. Terran birds can handle half their natal air pressure; wing designs naturally have a large safety margin. Eventually our big-brained flier will emerge from the crucible by settling progressively shallower pits. Perhaps dwarfing a bit as it climbs out, perhaps not an agile flier, perhaps staying flightless longer than most chicks, perhaps needing quite a long runway, like swans, perhaps (in a word) vulnerable; but still the only people on Abyssia with speech, hands, and flight. Species can often radiate, once they've worked out their design bugs in a friendly oasis. Intelligent species will adapt--once they've evolved intelligence.

On the rough map below, note the gray areas where no fliers live at all. These aren't dead zones--nearly all are rather fertile, in fact. They're uplands--mountains or hills higher than a kilometer. Heavy, ungainly fliers just have to work too hard in thin mountain air; they're effectively grounded. If, as I suspect, fliers often work as traders or messengers, high mountains can be walls blocking travel and communication. Or at least slowing it back to a ground-bound plod! Luckily, just a tiny fraction of Abyssia is high-altitude; such barriers are rare. The west coasts of Pacifica, Agassiz and Filipinia aren't just ecological islands, but cultural ones; news and goods come slowly, via coastal shipping, not transmontane airmail.

Low-density areas, in contrast, are mostly regions where food or water is scarce. I'm confident this will be true of the deserts; I could be wrong about the rainforests, which I've shown with modest populations. Difficult for ground dwellers to access food, but fliers can access the canopy, so they may eat well. Still, my fliers evolved in dry heat; their feathers will be poor insulation and they won't shed rain. In a humid environment, desert fliers might catch fungal or bacterial diseases. So I've postulated the highest populations in drier regions--open woods and savanna.

Map of the ranges of flying sentient avians on Abyssia, a world-building experiment. Click a feature to go there.

But how would such a desert tribe of fliers impact the world?

Sketch by Chris Wayan of a small birdwoman on a branch, on Abyssia, an Earth where up is down and down is up. Click to enlarge. Sketch by Chris Wayan of a gull-like bird's head on Abyssia, an Earth where up is down and down is up. Click to enlarge. Sketch by Chris Wayan of a bird person on Abyssia, an Earth where up is down and down is up. Click to enlarge. Sketch by Chris Wayan of a heronlike person on Abyssia, an Earth where up is down and down is up. Click to enlarge. Sketch by Chris Wayan of an avian person with a staff in a wood on Abyssia, an Earth where up is down and down is up. Click to enlarge.

Intro - Aeps - Pitians - Of Aeps and Angels - Mammals: Foxtaurs, Equi, Leptaurs - Reefs

Maritime nations and seaports have always been centers of innovation on Earth; but can mere sailors compete with fliers able to travel and spread news twenty times faster? And the Aeps' whole mythology will be based on their ancient bargain: renounce flight for brains. Soar in the body, or the mind; not both. And then along come some desert savages who rejected the price! Angels who rebelled, were cast into a hellish Pit... and emerged triumphant, with both brains and wings. Aeps versus angels! Or devils.

Hey, it's a desert tribe, I had to go all Judeo-Christian on you. Miltonian at least. Okay, okay. Will Greek myth work better for you? Prometheus comes out of the desert with the fire of mind and an intact liver--and lookin' vulture-ugly. Embarrassing feather loss...

As an Aep, what do you do? Do you welcome these fliers so future Abyssian civilization will be winged, or do you defend your inferior genes? Does "we" mean "intelligence" or just "my tribe?"

I see a cultural crisis brewing here. If a biologically better person comes along, should you and your lineage bow out, stop reproducing? Why limit your chicks so? Let their souls be born to Pitian parents, let them be ugly--but winged. So welcome the Pitians, integrate them into world civilization, and let them take over--right?

Or, of course, you could kill them out of spite. But that's a rather continental attitude. Europeans, Chinese, yes, I can see them responding so. But the Pacific cargo cults were a different response. And the Tasmanians, facing invaders with impossible, magical technology, just gave up in despair. And these were mere cultural differences; the same exact species! On Abyssia, we're considering the shock of meeting a people you can't interbreed with, a new species of people with powers you long for but can't learn... that you'll always lack.

Darwin? Come on, that shock was nothing. So we have crude, embarrassing relatives! What else is new? But imagine the shock for the poor aeps, facing their legendary angels. Finding they're the crippled, defective, primitive ones. And just possibly dying out in shame.

Sketch by Chris Wayan of an avian musician on Abyssia, an Earth where up is down and down is up. Click to enlarge. Sketch by Chris Wayan of an avian dancer on Abyssia, an Earth where up is down and down is up. Click to enlarge. Sketch by Chris Wayan of a crested avian person in chaparral on Abyssia, an Earth where up is down and down is up. Click to enlarge.
Still, let's be optimistic and assume that most flightless birds treat fliers as just two more species in the melting pot--to be envied in some ways perhaps, but more useful than a threat. Fliers would knit Abyssia into a unified civilization; communication by airmail, while not instantaneous, travels at a respectable 100 kph, a speed not matched in Earth's history until telegraph lines grew common. So instead of replacing large flightless birds, fliers may be a ubiquitious minority--a news- or messenger-guild.

Intro - Aeps - Pitians - Aeps & Angels - Mammals - Foxtaurs, Equi, Leptaurs - Reefs

Abyssian birds don't suffer from the hand-shortage that Terran birds do. But what of mammals? The constraints on walkers and runners are looser than on fliers, but still, most Terran mammals are quadrupeds; their forepaws, like bird feet, are transportation first and hands second. Most prefer to use mouths to grab or hold things.

Not on Abyssia. Mammals here have the luxury of remaining quadrupeds yet specializing their forepaws for manipulation. A typical Abyssian mammal is a centauroid with a slight upper torso, or (to apply our Terran terminology differently) a quadruped with a large neck sprouting small arms and hands. Many, for whom manipulation is not vital, may use their hands mainly for grooming; they may look much like Terran mammals. There are few or no bipeds; why bother? Silhouette of a leptaur holding a wineglass, on Abyssia.

Now, "centaur" is a loaded word. The Greeks may have invented them out of shock at seeing their first horsemen, but whether or not it was based on an initial error--not imagination, but a failure of imagination, failure to believe anyone could master such big creatures and ride them around--the Greeks layered on some quite perceptive physicalized metaphors.

It's a rich, perceptive archetype--but bad biology. Scotch-tape grafting! Even fantasy writers have trouble with it. Does a centaur's human mouth chow down on hay and raw grain, or do you feed your giant horse-gut with... hamburgers? How useful are those little arms way up there? Do they go into seasonal heat or pick lovers when they want? Do they marry/pairbond like humans and birds, or does an alpha male boss a harem of mares around (like most mammals?)

Abyssian centaurs aren't grafted, aren't dual. They're unitary creatures--they just use those dedicated hands where most Terran animals must use lips or tongue or feet. Humans, with our exceptional hands, really don't notice how frustrating Earth is for most of our relatives:

Abyssians have a broad advantage here. So from a similar pool of big smart species--at least a hundred ape-or-better intelligences on Abyssia, just as on Earth before we killed and ate a lot of them--I'm postulating a higher percentage of Abyssians will use tools routinely--and be able to defend themselves.

But 'clever hands alone do not a person make'. We want people. For that we need a social creature, preferably playful... Let's try three.

Intro - Aeps - Pitians - Aeps & Angels - Mammals: Foxtaurs , Equi, Leptaurs - Reefs

A green-eyed red foxtaur carrying saddlebags; native of Abyssia, an alternate Earth where up is down and down is up. Sketch by Wayan; click to enlarge.

Why canines? Well, Farley Mowat showed just how smart arctic wolves are. They use those giant brains, as big as those of chimps or gorillas. What they lack isn't brains--it's hands! So take a wolf, add opposable thumbs, simmer for fifty million years...

Canines may be officially classed in Carnivora, but behaviorally they're omnivores. Remember what dogs will eat, and try not to think about coyote tastes. So concede me this much; some modest-sized Abyssian canine centauroids will be omnivores. And our candidate for intelligence needs to be. Hunting without tools--strictly tooth and claw--is a risky, athletic business, and it grinds a critter down.

Such hunters don't live long. A human, or chimp, or elephant, or raven, or filter-feeding whale is young at fifteen--but a fifteen-year-old wolf or lion is a scarred, worn-out ancient. Pure predators can be highly intelligent--again, arctic wolves probably have a language, certainly have art (no? have you heard them sing?) and an intelligence as sharp as any ape--but they can't accumulate many decades of experience, or pass wisdom on to the great-grandcubs. They must hunt, and hunters acquire injuries. Sepia sketch by Chris Wayan of a foxtaur crawling through grass, on Abyssia, an alternate Earth where up is down and down is up.

Herbivores and omnivores have a huge advantage. Fruit won't fight back.

So a canine tribe likely to evolve past the wolf level to something more won't be fierce hunters, but smaller, chatty, playful, fruit-picking, rock-throwing omnivores.

There are limits on their size. They're not chihuahua-taurs. You need a body big enough to sustain a large brain. But huge dire-wolf-taurs (Fenris-taurs?) might not develop civilization; giants have a big ecological footprint (think how elephants knock down trees and trample crops); their population density will be limited. That slows innovation! Smaller creatures can live socially in more places.
Foxtaur singer at night on Abyssia, an alternate Earth where up is down and down is up. Watercolor on wood by Chris Wayan. Click to enlarge.

A second advantage of modest-sized canines; they generally live longer. Less wear and tear on the joints and spine, and with centauroids that may be an issue. It already is with wolves and larger dogs, and their spines are shorter and bear less weight than Abyssian taurs.

And there's a third subtle "advantage" to being small(ish); you're vulnerable. That's rough on individuals facing predation, but good for the species: you need tools, they'll be a real (pardon the pun) edge. Elephants have the brains and dexterity to build and use tools, but they rarely bother. What for? They didn't need to innovate. They ruled the land, until apes with tools suddenly blindsided them. In a geological flash most of them went extinct.
A foxtaur peering into water, on Abyssia, an alternate Earth. Sepia sketch by Chris Wayan.

So small is beautiful, down to child-size or so. Our primitives will be modest-sized canine centauroid omnivores--foxtaurs, let's call them--on a large, predator-rich continent rich in savanna and open woods. Oh, let's just say it: Pacifica, around the Hawaiian Sea.

What shapes foxtaur life? Like all canines, they like to burrow and lack claustrophobia. Since they're small (mean weight 30-40 kg or 66-88 lbs, standing 100-150 cm high), foxtaur "houses" are winding mazes of small tunnels and irregular rooms. Ideally these vary in shape, texture and smell--a sandy room will have a passage squeezing between stones to a root-filled room. The addition of hearths and small glass windows hasn't changed the overall mazelike quality; these aren't hobbit-holes, all leveled and symmetrical, but free-form sculpture one lives in. Burrows are an artform, stimulating quite as much foxtaur talk and attention as sex.

The paint-sketch to the left shows another quirk of foxtaurs: big eyes, irises capable of dilating farther than human ones, and more sensitive retinas. They see very well in the dark--not quite as well as cats, but starlight is like a full moon (or a streetlight) to them, and a full moon nearly as colorful as day. Perhaps it explains their love for burrowing. It doesn't take a window or a real lamp to light a room pleasantly, for a foxtaur--just an air vent or little glass porthole, or for fancy parties, a lone candle.

In hot country foxtaurs get gracile for heat dispersal--slender and leggy as deer, or Vogue models (don't be surprised. There's a South American fox species with legs as long as a deer's, that looks like one of Hokusai's crazier fantasy sketches; it'd never survive in a snowy climate.) Here's a tropical foxtaur from Victoria Sound, southern Pacifica:

Gracile subspecies of foxtaur leaning on boulder. Native to tropical Abyssia, an alternate Earth where up is down and down is up. Click to enlarge.
A foxtaur with walking stick in desert, on Abyssia, an alternate Earth. Sepia sketch by Chris Wayan.

Their habits are diverse too. In equatorial woods with muggy nights, or low deserts where nights are mild, like the lowlands of the Pacifica Desert (right), foxtaurs may be mostly nocturnal, only seeing the sun for an hour or so at dawn, before the heat builds up.

But where nights are cooler, towns may go crepuscular, taking an underground siesta through the heat of the day and a second snooze through the chilliest part of the night.

Yet in colder climates foxtaurs are as diurnal as humans. Comfort is always the shaping factor, not light.

Are there universals? Oh yes, and the sketch to the right illustrates one. Foxtaurs have itchy feet. They love to travel, whether sailing or on their own four paws. Many civilized groups are still nomadic, having seasonal villas at two or three points on an annual loop. If you've followed some of the regional tours, you've noticed how often foxtaurs are the traders and sailors connecting lonely islands. This isn't just economic; they simply like a change.

Another constant in all subspecies is foxtaur sex--more bonoboid than human, and as much about social bonding and friendship as it is about reproduction; constant, playful, affectionate, defusing tension, and often public. A relatively casual sexuality is understandable; the hindpelvis is wide and well-supported, with way less weight to support than human hips; so pregnancy is less onerous and birth much safer. Fertility depends mostly on how well-fed you are. No one has kits in a lean year. Perhaps this is why twinning is rare; kits tend to come in waves and grow up in cohorts. They don't need to come in clutches like puppies, to have playmates the right age.

Is the sketch below of an adolescent kit just a portrait, or furry erotica? Nudity itself means nothing among foxtaurs, of course, with their elegant pelts. They don't even wear much jewelry, let alone clothes--either could snag on roots or stones in their labyrinthine burrows. Trekking, yes; they'll often wear twin saddlebags, like a pannier. But not indoors. A fox foyer is for hanging up clothes. It's bad luck and bad taste to wear clothes further in--and this isn't superstition, but a way to minimize your chances of snagging and knocking over the art--and, of course, maximizing your chances of snagging and knocking over that attractive foxtaur who's been giving you the eye.

In other words: yes, nudity means nothing to a foxtaur, but the stance means everything. This adolescent vixen was clearly turned on by modeling for the sketch. Raising her tail like this in public is a sign of real excitement, not casual or polite flirtatiousness.

Sketch by Chris Wayan of a green-eyed adolescent foxtaur crouching flirtatiously, on Abyssia, an alternate Earth where up is down and down is up.

All this is of course just a teaser for (eventually) a separate page on the foxtaurs. And the same is true for...

Intro - Aeps - Pitians - Aeps & Angels - Mammals: Foxtaurs, Equi , Leptaurs - Reefs

Pacifica doesn't have the only Africa-like savanna. Agassiz has plenty. But down there, our candidate for intelligence is a deersized herbivorous centauroid--either a pony with small forearms emerging from its neck, or a ponytailed antelope-taur, take your pick. But with paws not hooves, most likely. Hmm. More like llamas than either deer or horses? Remember how smart llamas are!

These folks wander the prairies and riverine wood-strips and berry-patches of central Agassiz, picking fruit, cracking seeds, digging roots and nibbling on new foliage.

An equa, a centauroid on Abyssia, an Earth where up is down and down is up. Click to enlarge. An equa, a centauroid on Abyssia, an Earth where up is down and down is up. Click to enlarge. An equa, a centauroid on Abyssia, an Earth where up is down and down is up. Click to enlarge.

An equa, a centauroid on Abyssia, an Earth where up is down and down is up. Click to enlarge. Sketch by Chris Wayan of an equa, a centauroid people on Abyssia, an Earth where up is down and down is up. Click to enlarge. An equa, a centauroid on Abyssia, an Earth where up is down and down is up. Click to enlarge. An equa, a centauroidon Abyssia, an Earth where up is down and down is up. Click to enlarge.

Sketch by Chris Wayan of an equa, a centauroid people on Abyssia, an Earth where up is down and down is up. Click to enlarge. An equa, a centauroid on Abyssia, an Earth where up is down and down is up. Click to enlarge. Sketch by Chris Wayan of an equa, a centauroid people on Abyssia, an Earth where up is down and down is up. Click to enlarge. Sketch by Chris Wayan of an equa, a centauroid people on Abyssia, an Earth where up is down and down is up. Click to enlarge.
Just tentative sketches. For now, a species still under construction! Though much of the diversity you see above isn't conflicting conceptions of the equi, but actual diversity--races or subspecies quite as varied as horses.

Intro - Aeps - Pitians - Aeps & Angels - Mammals: Foxtaurs, Equi, Leptaurs - Reefs

On the far side of the world, Atlantis, the next largest continent, has extensive savannas in the west and open woods and glades all through the central mountains and much of the east coast. Here a third people evolved, from small nomadic bands of leopard-sized 'taurs. They won't be obligate carnivores like our big cats; that's a short, hard life. So these leptaurs are almost certainly omnivorous, like foxtaurs.

As with the equi, you'll note the sketches seem to conflict, particularly about skull- and facial-structure. Hazy concept? Some. But some is real diversity. Leptaurs can't fly and don't swim long distances--their solid bones and lack of fat mean they sink. They spread slower than humans. Tribes diverged in response to climate, terrain and cultural pressures: not just size, build and color but facial structure (jaws suited for different diets) and pelt-pattern (even, countershaded, spotted, striped).

Leaf-shaped painting by Chris Wayan of a leptaur in a wood, a centauroid people on Abyssia, an Earth where tall is deep and deep tall. Click to enlarge. Round painting by Chris Wayan of a leptaur and a raven on Abyssia, an Earth where tall is deep and deep tall. Click to enlarge. Painting on an LP disk by Chris Wayan of a leptaur and a raven on Abyssia, an Earth where tall is deep and deep tall. Click to enlarge. Painting by Chris Wayan of a cattaur swimming, a centauroid people on Abyssia, an Earth where tall is deep and deep tall. Click to enlarge.
Sponge-painting by Chris Wayan of a spotted cattaur on Abyssia, an Earth where tall is deep and deep tall. Click to enlarge. GIF by Chris Wayan of a leptaur with forepaws in water, on Abyssia, an Earth where tall is deep and deep tall. Click to enlarge. Painting by Chris Wayan of a leptaur with wineglass on Abyssia, an Earth where tall is deep and deep tall. Click to enlarge. Pencil sketch by Chris Wayan of a cattaur on a rocky bluff, on Abyssia, an Earth where tall is deep and deep tall. Click to enlarge.

Here's a sculpture of a leptaur singer-dancer in a cabaret (no, not a lepton; they audition too, but never get the part. "Sorry, you're too short.")

I apologize for the roughness (she's sculpted of coathanger and spackle) but you can get the general idea.

Sculpture by Chris Wayan of a dancing cattaur, a centauroid people on Abyssia, an Earth where up is down and down is up. Click to enlarge. Sculpture by Chris Wayan of a dancing cattaur, a centauroid people on Abyssia, an Earth where up is down and down is up. Click to enlarge. Sculpture by Chris Wayan of a dancing cattaur, a centauroid people on Abyssia, an Earth where up is down and down is up. Click to enlarge. Sculpture by Chris Wayan of a dancing cattaur, a centauroid people on Abyssia, an Earth where up is down and down is up. Click to enlarge. Sculpture by Chris Wayan of a dancing cattaur, a centauroid people on Abyssia, an Earth where up is down and down is up. Click to enlarge.

Wonder if these mammalian species will freak when they meet!

Map of the ranges of sentient mammals on Abyssia, a world-building experiment. Click a feature to go there.
My readers, alert creatures that you are, have already noticed that all these rangemaps tend to break out in rashes--small purple spots where all populations are not just present but abound at high density. These aren't errors; they're ports. The largest arise on straits like Lima that funnel shipping from many lands into contact, and transoceanic resupplying depots like Sala, which don't force contact but lure ships in with fresh water, fresh fruit... fresh news. In such places, many species meet.

On Earth during the Age of Sail, major ports were places of innovation, news and culture. London, not Moscow or Beijing, was the place to be. We still retain this prejudice today even in a time when the Web has flattened that news-gradient, removed the ports' advantage. Well, it retains some truth; but more from cultural momentum (or inertia, if you're stuck in a stodgy town) than real economic or technological pressure. But in Shakespeare's time, or Darwin's, it was real. Ports saw it all first.

On Abyssia, low-tech and netless, such ports are unquestionably lively places; but inland's not quite the hinterland it was in our Age of Sail. Remember flight! News, ideas and inventions spread at near-locomotive speed across Abyssian interiors--island chains, too. Ships bring cargo, but not often fresh news. Torians and Kurituks, like angelic bike messengers, have been there before them.

So Abyssia's inland cities are more cosmopolitan than you'd think. Enjoy the ports when you visit, but don't assume (as did Europeans in the Age of Sail; as did the Polynesians) that civilization is coastal; that ports are the only islands of light in the sea of Cultural Darkness.

Intro - Avians: Aeps - Pitians - Aeps & Angels - Mammals: Foxtaurs, Equi, Leptaurs - Reef-Dwellers, or, O Pioneers!

Sketch of a squid holding an axe, hanging by two tentacles from a tree branch.

All this terracentric thinking! And I don't mean Terra--I mean terra firma. I'm a land animal--of course I have land-bias! But Abyssia's reefs are vast--at least triple Earth's. They hold as much biomass as all the land on Abyssia. And much of that land is coastal, wet and low--marsh, mangrove swamp, bog, annually flooded forests. Can we be sure that molluscs or crustaceans won't end up in the trees? They have on Earth--they're just up against stiff competition in most places. It's lonely islands where they rule.

Parable time!

(for grisly details--and they are grisly--read Jimmy Skaggs's Clipperton)

Consider the history of Clipperton Atoll off Mexico, one of Earth's loneliest islets. It's the stump of a large volcano eroded back to sea level except for a stony castle at the old vent. When discovered it was barren, despite a three-mile ring of land, a warm climate and generous rains--up to 3 meters (120") a year. But crabs crept out every night to eat everything--including coconut seedlings. A century ago, to feed a small mining colony, pigs were imported. They feasted on... crab. Nothing else to eat. Amazingly, they survived their all-crab diet. Humans would die of scurvy, but pigs produce their own Vitamin C.

And for once in history, feral pigs actually improved a landscape! To the local wildlife, pigs were less piggish than these crabs-in-the-manger. Coconut seedlings started in planter boxes grew too large for the crabs to kill. The island slowly greened. When some of the miners were stranded, the coconuts provided enough C to supplement their crabby diet. They survived.

Decades later, the pigs were killed off by ecologists "to restore the original vegetation." What vegetation? They soon found out. Crabs razed the island again. Last I heard it was barren--at a latitude where it should be Eden.

Moral: Arr, matey, there be pigs and pigs!

Wait, we don't want the moral, this is science. We want the amoral.

Amoral: isolated environments can get very, very weird.

Abyssia is islands, many of them lonelier than Clipperton. Few land animals will reach them. They're little Petri dishes practically begging birds and sea life (octopi, crabs, lungfish, seals, plesiosaurs, iguanas, mermaids; whatever you like) to pioneer, settle, and adapt. And then radiate...

Or half-settle. We think it's either/or, land or sea--but what of a people who live on the reefs, but are quite able to emerge and exploit the land, as we fish and exploit (but rarely settle in or on) the sea? The land offers more than just new foods and materials, of course. There's fire! And down the millennia after mastering fire, ceramics--and then metals. Can we be sure an amphibious people won't end up dominating the reefs and islands and shorelines of Abyssia?

And given the fractality of that Abyssian shore, we're talking most of the planet...

Map of Abyssia, a world-building experiment. Click a feature to go there.
TOURS: this route snakes around Abyssia's major lands - Lena Is. (brr!) - Greek Is. - Atlantis - Azorea - Cayman and Albatrosia - Andean Is. - Scotia Is. - Morningtonia - Agassiz - South Pacifica - East Pacifica - Hawaiian Sea - Pacifica Desert - Filipinia - Banda Is. - Vityaz Archipelago - Tasman Is. - The Bight - Whartonia - Chagosia - Somalia - Mascarenia and Crozetia - Weddellia - Argentia - Pernambuco - Angolia - Tristania - Agulhas group

Abyssia's homepage - map - peoples - regional tours - names

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