Turning Reality Into Fantasy: Domesticating Pleistocene Megafauna

Boundless, sprawling empires. Hidden, mountain kingdoms. Isolated cities. Great armies engaging on the field of battle.

The above blurb seems to describe a lot of stories in the Fantasy genre, including but not limited to books, movies, and video games. Readers are awed by vast populations living in secluded cities, locked in a perpetually Medieval epoch, complete with the limited technological advancements of that age. It all begs the question:

What do these people eat?

All too often, the issue of food production gets skimmed over. There is, of course, no shortage of farmers in Fantasy fiction. I’ve often wondered if they get annoyed that their sons are constantly turning out to be Chosen Ones summoned to save the world, leaving a whole lot of chores undone. But usually, we’re offered little more than a cursory explanation of what kinds of food sources they depend on: cows, sheep, Medieval staples like wheat and millet, and maybe a spice we’ve never heard of, just to shake things up.

In writing fantasy fiction, one’s imagination is the only limit. Dragons, magic, forbidden fortresses, all these help readers to escape into bold, fantastic worlds. So why let the imagination stop there?

In this continuing series on fantasy fiction, I go beyond cows and sheep to explore a domesticated creature found in the world of The Fallen Odyssey.

The Bison

“Roaming the grasses, gently lowing to one another as they grazed, were bison-like creatures with heavy coats the color of black walnuts. They were great, fat things with muscular legs, and hidden among the fur were little faces with wide snouts. Blunt, oxen-like horns hung curled over their foreheads. It was not difficult to imagine these beasts roaming wild and untamed across the mountain valleys…”

– from The Fallen Odyssey by C.B. McCullough

With the exception of some novelty farms dotting the American Midwest, the bison is not commonly used as livestock. The American Bison was hunted to the brink of extinction in the 17th century. It’s been estimated that prior to 1492, wild bison populations in North America were around 6 million. By 1890, only 750 individual animals were left.

Numbers like that make you wonder what could have been. What would North America look like today, if the American Bison hadn’t been so nearly wiped off the face of the Earth? I decided to run with this idea—to take the bison and transplant it into a more intimate relationship with man.

Most of the livestock in The Fallen Odyssey would appear familiar to our eyes, but some are a bit different. The bison as described in the excerpt above, for example, is a slight variation on the American Bison that might come to mind. My take on the animal is actually based on a few extinct counterparts once found on Earth.

The Giant Bison (Bison latifrons)

Also known as the broad-headed paleo-bison, this Pleistocene species went extinct over 20,000 years ago. Larger than modern bison, Bison latifrons stood eight feet tall at the shoulders. From tip-to-tip, its horns measured nearly four times those of the modern bison, and it would have been a formidable animal.

The Steppe Bison (Bison priscus)

Another species that lent inspiration is the extinct Steppe Bison. Also known as the Steppe Wisent, this earlier species would look to modern eyes like a fearsome mix between a bison and a bull. It’s bull-like horns and build seem clearly related to the aurochs (also extinct).

Though these animals died off long ago, they live on in the world of The Fallen Odysseyroaming the fantastic prairies and mountain valleys of the imagination.

Read long and prosper.

– CB

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8 thoughts on “Turning Reality Into Fantasy: Domesticating Pleistocene Megafauna

  1. Hmmm… interesting choice on the bison. Sounds intriguing. Food seems so obvious to me that I sometimes miss putting it in. I had a friend in earlier drafts point out “but what are they eating?” Like you said, we need to know everything about our story’s world.

    1. Yup. I’m that guy. I tend to analyze everything in fiction; books, movies, TV, you name it. It’s annoying to anyone watching a movie with me (my poor wife!) but very helpful when it comes to my own writing.
      Thanks for the comment. Really enjoying “Lit and Scribbles”.

      1. Lol, I know what you mean. Sometimes my friend makes the mistake of asking something like, “What’s going to happen?” And is amazed when I say, “This.” But why? Obvious choice. I’m always impressed with writers that can make a choice that isn’t obvious before I see it, but seems obvious after the fact. I guess it’s our storyteller’s curse. 😉

  2. Reblogged. Thanks, you are right, often the sources of food are glossed over. Or it is assumed fantasy folk eat what we eat and it isn’t necessarily so, as they say:) I have my adventurers eating salamander (although not willingly) and have been searching around for other useful ideas.

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