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Maritime Economies Continued: Anthropological Insights from America's Pacific Northwest

The Pacific Northwest of North America is a thin strip of land stretching from the Pacific Coast of Washington and Oregon, along Canada, and up to Alaska. This is my favorite region of North America to study: this tiny strip of land was so unique, so rich, that even though its inhabitants never developed agriculture (they never had a reason to), they created unique, complex societies with a class system and a group of noble families based on surplus from fish alone. Its population density was among the highest in all of North America. So if you really like the idea of creating a fishing-based nation in your world, this culture area has more interesting insights to help you on your way.

Why is this region so unique? Because it is located along the famously rich Pacific fisheries, some of the richest on earth. This stretch of coast is so productive that a number of anthropologists argue that the first American Indians to make their way into their future home would have made their way along the coast instead of an inland route. In the millennia after the first human beings crossed the Northwest Coast, the people who lived in this area developed a unique culture and economy based off the exploitation of marine resources, with no interest in or need for agriculture. The resources available in the region are truly staggering, and always give me a hankering for sea food whenever I think about them. Whales and sea mammals could be hunted outright or taken after they washed onto the shore as sick of dead individuals. Children, pregnant women, and elderly people could contribute to meals by collecting shellfish on the shore (kids, in particular, could probably be kept out of trouble this way). Birds would nest on offshore islands free of predators and migrate along the coast in the millions every year. All sorts of varieties of seaweed could be eaten. Fish? Please.

Unlike most hunter-gatherers, the societies along the Pacific Northwest had ranked classes, nobility, commoners, and slaves. Nobles would live in houses built in separate rows from commoners, nearer to the sea shore, and their status was inherited. They were wealthy people who built up huge surpluses of extra food that they turned into political capital and used in trade. Compare this to what I said of subarctic hunter-gatherers in the previous post. They are much more characteristic of most hunter-gatherer societies. These people groups are egalitarian, with no nobles but no slaves. Leadership is not inherited but earned. Wealth is not accumulated, but people share to keep the group alive. War is absent; people get into skirmishes, but they cannot fight pitched battles. You do not inherit anything, as no one is more wealthy than anyone else. If you want to be a leader, you earn it. 99% of hunter-gatherers follow this social pattern.

NW Coast people were more like settled agriculturalists, and they achieved this by exploiting the bounty of the sea. Where most hunter gatherers moved around regularly, NW coast people lived in semi-permanent villages. They would normally have a summer and winter village, and would move between them with the seasons. The skeleton of their houses would be left at the site, and when they were going to move, they would take the outer shell of their plank houses with them to put the wood on the waiting skeleton. Most hunter gatherers have no concept of property. People use resources, but no one owns them. NW coast people developed concepts of private ownership like those of agriculturalists. People owned their stocks of fish and even claimed the right to use certain resources - rivers, trees, and stretches of coast. To exploit the rich coastal resources that made their wealth possible, NW coast people developed nets and sinkers, dugout canoes, scaling knives, and unique technologies that I will detail. The first is the toggling harpoon. Unlike most harpoons, the blade of the toggling harpoon rotates underneath the skin of the animal as it enters, so the animal cannot pull it out. The other unique piece of tech is the fishing wier. These are wooden traps placed into streams, wooden weavings that allow water to pass through, but catch the fish. Your maritime fantasy nation would make use of these technologies in maintaining their sea based economy.

Unlike the Arctic, where wood would only be found drifting on the ocean, the Pacific Northwest was covered in forest, and the people who lived there made woodcarving into a high art form. The material culture of the NW was almost entirely reliant on wood, particularly cedar wood. The ubiquitous material was used to make baskets, blankets, houses, masks, dugout canoes, chests, masks, ropes, and bentwood boxes. PLEASE NOTE, if you like the idea of writing a complex, wealthy society based on fishing, PAY ATTENTION to the following. Bentwood boxes are an excellent way for your fantasy culture to store their catch. They were airtight and watertight containers with very few seams, and real world NW coast people had no need for pottery. A plank of wood was bent into the shape of square, with a bottom sewn on and all seams completely sealed. You could store fish for years in this manner, and they could be a common feature in the markets of your maritime kingdom. The skills needed to produce these containers would be in high demand, and skilled wood workers in your world could gain a great deal of prestige and wealth, perhaps forming guilds to safeguard their valuable methods.

As in the Arctic, whale hunters were powerful, well-respected figures in the societies of the Pacific Northwest. Not all Native Americans who lived in this area were whale hunters. Many of them simply waited for whale carcasses to wash up on shore. Whale hunting was dangerous, but certain tribes, like the Makah, were. In communities that practiced whale-hunting. In your maritime kingdom, whale-hunting could be the exclusive right of royalty and nobility, much like how the kings of medieval Europe monopolized hunting rights in large swaths of forest. Among real world NW coast societies, Whales would be struck with harpoons attached to heavy sealskin floats, which would drag on the animal to tire it out and keep it afloat after it was killed. The whalers would sing to the animal, promising to sing and dance for it if it allowed itself to be killed. The chief harpooner on the expedition was given the best cut of meat, a piece from the animal’s back.

Because of the incredible richness of the NW coast region, the communities who lived there enjoyed throwing great feasts called potlaches (the origin of our modern pot lucks). In these feasts, different families would show off their wealth to one another, and these could be very extreme, competitive events as everyone tried to out do one another. If no one could eat any more food or carry any more blankets, the host may start burning them, showing how wealthy he was through how much of his own property he could burn. Slaves may also be executed (which I cannot condone). In addition to rewarding friends, potlaches could also be used to humiliate rivalsand ruin enemies, showing the world that the limits of their wealth and power.
The Far North. Anthropological Insights from the Arctic and Subarctic

This post is heavily based on the information I learned in a course on the Archaeology of North America, taken in Spring of 2018. Not only are these culture area some of the most interesting in NA (in my opinion), but they are also useful for constructing believable cultures in arctic and subarctic settings.

Environmental Contexts

In certain environmental contexts in the Americas, there is one extreme environmental condition that is battled against constantly. In the arctic and subarctic, that condition is extreme, unrelenting cold, and to a lesser extent, dryness. The average arctic winter temperature is -25 degree Fahrenheit, and in storm conditions it can drop as low as – 100 degrees. Few species have successfully adapted to its harsh conditions, and the region has little diversity in plant and animal life. This is not good for hunter-gatherers, who like high-diversity in food sources. In a low diversity environment, such as the arctic, if a species that hunter-gatherers are reliant upon crashes in population, they would be devastated, and mass starvation could occur. Disruption in the species relied upon by arctic hunter-gatherers has led to the decline and extinction of cultures, as we shall see later.

The arctic is distinguished from the subarctic by its lack of trees; it is too far north, too cold, with too short a growing season to accommodate forests. Those plants in the arctic tundra are tough, fast growing grasses and scrub that can mature quickly enough to reproduce in the very short, 3 month, arctic growing season. Precipitation is low, and the air is extremely dry its moisture locked up in snow and ice. Drainage is poor, so when summer comes and some of the ice melts, conditions become very gross and boggy, making travel difficult. It is also coastal, and the hunter-gatherers of the arctic are especially known to exploit marine resources. The unique, complex, marine based economies of the arctic had their beginning with the stabilization of sea levels 8,000 – 5,000 years ago, which finally allowed coastal ecosystems to mature. The subarctic, on the other hand, is inland, and not so harsh. Trees grow here in abundance, mostly evergreen conifers, but some broadleaf species such as birch. The growing season in longer, and the cold is not so extreme. The subarctic is covered with taiga or Boreal forest. The eastern subarctic is dominated by the thin, rocky soil of the Canadian shield, a huge expanse of exposed bedrock that was shorn of its soil thanks to glacial advance and retreat. Hunter-gatherers in the subarctic tend to focus on terrestrial animals, particularly large herbivores, such as elk, moose, caribous, and musk ox.

In your writing, understand that any society you create in these environments is EXTREMELY unlikely to be agricultural. As I have pointed out previously, without the ability to create a surplus of food, you will not be able to write a complex, class based society... but there is an alternative to agriculture. The basis for any complex society lies in its ability to create a surplus of food. An alternative to agriculture? Intensive fishing in rich coastal settings. Arctic and subarctic waters' cold temperatures host very rich marine life, as cold water holds more dissolved oxygen than warm water. In North America, there were more American Indians living in the Arctic than the evergreen forests of the subarctic due to the region's rich oceans. In addition, the Northwest Coast featured non-agricultural societies that were able to create great surpluses thanks to the richness of their coast. If you write a sea rich enough, you could realistically write of a great northern kingdom of the sea, subsisting off of whales, fish, shrimp, seals, etc. This nation's prosperity would be unaffected by the same factors that cause famine in agricultural societies, such as drought or a change in the weather, and would conceivably be one of the foremost naval powers inn your setting. Plant foods would play little to no role in the diet of the people (or fantasy races) that live here, save perhaps seaweed. Even in the subarctic forests, the plant life surrounding your fantasy culture will not be particularly appetizing (who wants to eat pine trees?). Carnivory would be a given.

Thanks to the presence of ice caps, the peoples, languages, and cultures of North America's Arctic are closely related to those of Northeast Asia (Siberia). The modern Inuit actually did not come over into North America's arctic with most American Indians, but much later. The presence of ice caps made it possible for people to traverse the far north on foot. In addition, many migrated in following the marine animals that were their primary prey. In your worldbuilding, you might consider emulating these processes to create a far-northern cultural sphere of related people and languages.

Another consideration of this setting: physical adaptations to the environment. In very cold settings, people and animals evolve to have large, wide, stocky bodies with short limbs. Why? Because small, thin bodies lose heat quickly and easily, where larger, stocky bodies retain it for a long period of time. Your people (unless they had just arrived there from a warmer environment) will be short and stocky. Your animals will be large and imposing: think huge polar bears, woolly mammoths, and massive seals and whales, all of which can provide a great deal of meat and material if hunted. A calculation by a archaeology profession of mine suggests that a SINGLE downed mammoth could provide SIX MILLION calories! Therefore, hunting will be a very rewarding activity!

Lastly, given the extremely cold environment, your people will be unable to live alone. Survival in a habitat like this will require help, and exile or separation from their families or tribe will mean certain death. Cold and aridity will always hang over your characters and their societies, and they will battle it endlessly. Every aspect of their lives will be built around warding off a freezing death. You could weave this fear of loneliness, exile, and a freezing death into their mythology and worldview. Death and evil would be cold and white. Their ghost stories could be inhabited by avatars of the dangers of their environment, evil spirits of blizzards, yetis, or white walkers. Your people will not (unless they are non-human) belong in their land, and in that fact lies the possibility for weaving rich backstories about how they found themselves there. Did the rest of the world sink beneath the waves? Were they exiled into the freezing wastes by a vengeful god or a rival power? Are they forbidden from leaving due to magical barriers or a curse?

Cultural Adaptations and Far Northern Economies

There is great diversity to Arctic and Sub-Arctic economies in the anthropological record, and with them, you can build up a variety of different ethnic groups based on the exploitation of different environmental niches. Great maritime empires based on fishing. Tough as nails whalers living on far flung islands. Nomadic forest folk hunting caribou.

* Forest Nomads: Terrestrial, subarctic (forests) economies focused on the hunting of large animals, and the societies that resulted had to be highly mobile to follow the herds. As a result, they could only take with them what they could carry, and they could not accumulate surplus or wealth. Your nomadic forest-folk would be master trackers, finding their widely dispersed, elusive prey from the smallest hint of their presence, possibly employing domesticated dogs in finding their way. They would live in small, easily transported tents they they (or their dogs) could move quickly and easily. Their homes would be unadorned and simple. After all, why go to great lengths to decorate your dwelling when you will leave it in a few days? In your setting, these people could serve as the hunters of escaped criminals, as master forest rangers and guides for outsiders, as bringers of news, goods, ideas, and disease from far away.

* Whale Hunters: Some later Arctic societies, notably the Thule (ancestors of the modern Inuit), specialized in whale-hunting, a practice that required highly developed technology and great skill, that involved great logistical problems but also enormous payoffs. Whale hunting is a VERY difficult task, and your whale hunting people will be tough, resourceful, master boat builders at ease on the rough, open sea. Skill and time would be spent preparing their boats and making them seaworthy, and the leader of the whale hunt would be a skilled, charismatic, and successful leader who could rally people to a dangerous but rewarding enterprise. Several families would need to collaborate to field the resources and manpower to conduct a successful whale hunt. The Thule made two kinds of boats for the hunt: Umiaks and Kayaks. Kayaks were small, slim, agile vessels for one person which would be used to scout for whale pods. Bigger, flat umiaks would serve as the harpooning platform. The prey would be harpooned and made to drag the umiak (and perhaps sealskin floats) around until it tired/ bled out, at which point it would be brought back to shore. Several families would work together to drag the massive animal out of the sea, and the whale-hunt captain and his/her family would be allowed to distribute the meat as they saw fit. In real world Thule societies, the whale meat could not be made into surplus, as it would begin to rot during the short Arctic summer. However, if your society has developed a means of preserving the whale meat, you would use it as a means to establish wealth for the nobility.

* Fisherfolk: Fishing was also important in some areas in the real life Arctic. Anadromous fish, such as salmon, live in the ocean but must swim upriver to spawn in fresh water. They do this on a very predictable schedule. Down to the hour, you can predict where and when massive amounts of fish will be available to harvest, and exploit that resource accordingly. If your fishing societies know how to preserve the fish, they can use this to establish wealth for the nobility of society.

…But in all of these real life economies there is a seasonal pattern. In a famous metaphor, an Inuit man speaking to an anthropologist said that his life could be summed up as "willow smoke and dog's tails"

* Winter Patterns (Dog’s Tails): The most wide-ranging activity; the frozen ground makes travel by dog sled easy. In the winter, you will see major subsistence expeditions and a lot of trade. A constant sight at this time of year would be the wagging tails of the dogs pulling sleds.

* Summer Patterns (Willow Smoke): Travel is harder in the swampy conditions of the summer. This is a community oriented, inward focused time for communal activities and rituals – all around a fire made of the wood of willow plants.

Characteristics of Terrestrial vs Maritime Economies

Terrestrial economies in the North American Arctic were found among small, egalitarian, highly mobile societies. Archaeologists come to conclusions about past cultures based on the material items they leave behind, but terrestrial economies in the far north simply didn't leave much behind. After all, they are constantly in motion, chasing after the herds of caribou that give them their livelihood, and they need to carry all their stuff with them! This means that their items will be light, practical, and easily replaceable. Their art will involve decoration of these items. They will shun pottery. After all, its very heavy and smashes into a million pieces is you drop it (which you might do often chasing your livelihood). More likely they will use deerskins to carry their things. In addition, they do not stay in one place for a long time, so they do not have the opportunity to make a big mark on their campgrounds in the few days to weeks they live there. The most we know about them archaeologically comes from their stone tools. In your worldbuilding, your nomadic forest folk would be difficult to find, not leaving much behind them as they moved through the woods, like ghosts. They would also be relatively poor. After all, why would you accumulate a lot of wealth if you have to drag it behind you all the time? But, on the positive side, your forest nomads would not have to deal with unjust class systems. Their leaders would be leaders because of their charisma and skill, not because they were born into it.

Maritime economies in the North American Arctic were much different from their terrestrial counterparts. Since their sea-based economies are so productive, they have no need to move around. They will accumulate many more possessions than the forest nomads. After all, they don't need to drag all their stuff with them all the time. These cultures had pottery and heavy objects like oil lamps (that they would fill with seal or whale oil by scraping it off blubber with a stone knife) that highly mobile forest people would not bother with. In your writing, these types of societies would be wealthier, as they could store a surplus to use for trade without worrying about dragging ti everywhere. They would have classes of nobles who owned more, and the children of these nobles would be born into wealth and power. These societies would be much more likely to be stuck dealing with out of touch nobles and spoiled, entitled children of wealthy members than the egalitarian forest folk. They will also have fewer purely practical items than the nomads. Since they are settled down and have extra food to support them, they can spend time making objects just for beauty. Many of these items will be status symbols for your nobles. An example of socio-political items found in this tradition are labrets, piercings made of bone or ivory that are inserted into the lip. They have no use outside of signaling status. They are worn by community leaders and visible from a great distance away in the sunlight, directing everyone’s attention towards the wearer. Long term wearing of labrets wear down the surface of the teeth, leaving facets that can be used to identify an individual as a person of status. These maritime archaic people used a unique, especially effective type of harpoon called a toggling harpoon ,which rotates 90 degrees under the animal’s skin to make it much harder for the prey to break loose. They were subject to enormous force and tension penetrating thick animal hide, and were thus made of bone for the material’s tensile strength. Characteristic of marine NA arctic societies are oil lamps, which provide light in the long arctic winter. These would never have been carried around by nomadic hunter-gatherers. They are much too heavy; their presence in the archaeological record strongly indicates a sedentary, marine focused society.

More on Whale Hunting: Prestige and Power among Inuit Whale Hunters

Whale hunting requires leadership. It is a very challenging activity, requiring not only skill and experience, but also charisma to rally people to take on the risk, to get five or six families together to hunt. Few individuals can make a claim to such skill; few can set out to attempt the hunt in the first place. In addition, the Umialik must have the materials and skill to create sea worthy vessels, as they shall be hunting on the open ocean. Furthermore, despite the risks and logistical problems, the payoff of the whale-hunt is enormous, both in regards to wealth and prestige. The umiak who leads the hunt has the sole right to distribute the meat. That tension between the difficulty of the activity and the power and wealth brings creates opportunity and power. You need to be especially skilled to undertake it, and the rewards it brings allow you to consolidate and add to your power.

The knowledge to make an umiak is often guarded. Those who are umialiks desire to maintain their power, not to let just anyone go and hunt whales. The Umialik and his wife have the sole right to distribute the meat to whomever they see fit to give it to. This is an enormous position of power. They might distribute the whale meat, but the people who are given food then owe the Umialik something, creating a power base. Often, the Umialik asked for loyalty in war. The arctic, as a food-poor environment, has always suffered a low level of endemic warfare. Skirmishes for food and territory are common.

Despite the power of the umialiks and the abundance of food that could be amassed through whale hunting, the Arctic does not feature any very hierarchically ranked societies, though communities, and families within them, have differing wealth and power. Why such little socio-political complexity? Well, if you want to pass down power to your chidren, you need to have a large, storable resource to provide them with. The arctic whale meat did not last over the summer. It had a limited shelf life. The umialiks could not accumulate a bank of surplus. Another reason: low population density and lots of empty land. Very hierarchical societies tend to be circumscribed, so that even if people do not like their leaders, they cannot leave. In the arctic, if you do not like your leader, you can vote with your feet and go somewhere else, and your leader cannot stop you.
Greetings. I am Arianrhod, a history buff who is studying to be an anthropologist at university. Much of my worldbuilding. I plan to post a number of resources from my library here to aid other worldbuilders in their work. To start with:

Agriculture and its Consequences​:

The transition from foraging to agriculture did not happen at the same time in all parts of the world: it happened when foraging was no longer a viable option, and the pressures that caused this transition came to a head at different times in different parts of the world.

99% of human history was spent as hunter-gatherers; the advent of agriculture emerged as a long-term consequence of the Pleistocene Extinction. The megafauna that had provided large game hunters with quick access to millions of calories died off at the beginning of the Holocene, forcing humanity to rely on low-calorie, difficult to obtain foods. Many adaptations were invented to maximize the food acquired and minimize the time and energy put into its acquisition; domestication and agriculture emerged as such strategies, though not for millennia.

Domestication occurs when humans, knowingly or unknowingly, manipulate the traits of a wild species of plant of animal, selecting those phenotypes advantageous for them, often to the detriment of the organism’s ability to survive in the wild and making the domesticate dependent on humanity for its survival. Neolithic communities reliant on agriculture formed settled villages and began to fire pottery to store food. Hunter-gatherers were no strangers to ceramics but generally shunned ceramic pots for woven baskets, as pots were heavy and difficult to transport without beasts of burden.

Agriculture solves some problems but created others in is wake. Foragers ate a broad-spectrum diet of a wide variety of foods, exploiting a large area of land lightly but extensively. Agriculturalists ate a narrow spectrum diet of only one or two staple foods and often suffered from nutritional deficiencies as a result. They required a much smaller area of land but cultivated it extensively, to the point that they were prone to degrade the land and cause famine and soil exhaustion. Foragers could simply move when in conflict with other groups; agriculturalists were often forced into war. Foragers could leave for greener pastures if their food supply vanished agriculturalists would have to trade for food, forcibly take it from someone else, or face famine.

How Domestication Works​:

Domestication entails human intervention in the natural life cycle of plants and animals, changing them in ways desirable to humans, often unintentionally. All species have a variety of different traits; domestication acts as an artificial selection, much faster than natural evolution.​

Domestication may have started by accident. For example, humans like to eat grasses with big seeds and thin seed coats, making them nutritious and easy to digest. When humans eat the seeds, some of them are undigested and excreted into their middens, where they grow surrounded by abundant fertilizer and propagate their genes.​ The relationship of agriculturalists and domesticates is symbiotic, as both are reliant on one another for survival. The traits selected for the benefit of humans may be harmful to the survival of the organism in the wild.​

Primary centers of domestication are where domestication is invented; secondary centers of domestication are locations where domesticates spread to. Domestication was independently invented in many different regions at different times, almost exclusively in rich environmental contexts, rather than poor ones.​

Cereals, for example, attach their seeds to the plant with a thin fiber called a rachis. In the wild, these rachis are brittle and thin, so they may break in the wind and their seeds may be carried off easily to grow into new plants. But a human farmer has surely wasted their time tending to their plants if a gust of wind carries off all the seeds they intended to eat. Thus, humans selected for plants with thick, flexible rachis – such plants would never be able to reproduce in the wild, as the wind would not be strong enough to carry off their seeds; the seeds would rot on the plant and the plant would die out.​

In another case, humans selected for smaller, more docile goats with twisted, dull horns rather than sharp, straight, saberlike ones. Breeding out sharp horns kept goats from stabbing and killing human farmers, but it also removed their ability to defend themselves from predators, making them dependent on humans for survival.​

What Agriculture Entails :

Agriculture entails a totally new relationship between humanity and the landscape; where foragers exploited the land extensively, agriculturalists do so intensively. Foragers are only involved in the final stage of the life cycle of plants and animals, where agriculturalists are intimately involved in the entire life cycle:​

Propagation: The seeding of plants and breeding of animals​
Husbandry: Caring for the plants and animals​
Harvest/Slaughter: The harvest of plants and slaughter of animals​
Storage/Maintenance: The storage of plants and winter maintenance of animals​
Agriculture provided a greater food supply to support higher populations and provides a constant, predictable food supply.

Stored surplus gets people through times of scarcity. Animals provide milk, wool, leather, and ivory in addition to meat and can be used as beasts of burden.​
* The metropole (most populous and powerful areas) in your world are going to be the most fertile and resource rich regions that have good communication throughout, whether by the use of rivers or the use of roads. These areas are likely to have a much more stratified social structure based on class, as there will be more for the wealthy to siphon off to enrich themselves.
* More marginal areas, like Rho, are more likely to have more egalitarian societies, as they have to share between classes to survive. If they are very rugged and lack good communication, it is very unlikely that a centralized ruler will pop up (unless they are using magic or a new technology, like airships).
How large is the land area covered? Are we talking the size of s country (like, say, the size of France) or the size of a continent (like Westeros). That will determine the cause of the different biomes in your world. If it all exists in a temperate zone surrounded by ocean, then Rho will be an inland basin made into a desert through a rain shadow effect. But if we are talking an area the size of a continent, then we could attribute the different biomes to different latitude.
<Snipped quote by Arianrhod>

Whats the next step in terms of making a map?


Well, let me see it first.
Yes, I am still available
Ohhh I think I have you covered. Message me if you would like details.
I am interested. Do you limit your players to certain races (the old elves, dwarves, etc?). I make my own.
I'm an avid worldbuilder with a decade + of experience. Would that do? I can certainly help you.
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