Going through the encounter tables in the Glossography of the first boxed World of Greyhawk Fantasy Setting is a trove of inspiration and information, and I highly recommend it to any who wish to plumb the depths of E. Gary Gygax’s masterpiece.
The legacy within fantasy literature to place cultures which are separated not only by thousands of miles, but also thousands of years, in proximity to one another in a fantasy world is an old one. Few did it as artfully as did Robert E. Howard in his masterful Conan stories, where we see the medieval French empire of Aquilonia not far removed from the Pharonic Egyptian culture of Stygia. There are quite a few instances of such juxtapositioning within the World of Greyhawk Fantasy Setting as well; the Swiss-Confederation-Like Perrenland across a slip of water from what is essentially an Asiatic (or perhaps North American) nomadic nation, to take but one example. But what interests me here specifically is quite another juxtaposition indeed.
I speak specifically of cavemen.
Cavemen in the World of Greyhawk? Surely I’m speaking of something from the excellent module “Isle of the Ape.”
Gambol with me through said encounter tables and you will find the following fascinating tidbits in relation to their prehistoric members. Cavemen may be found in the mountainous portions of the Valley of the Mage, the Barrier Peaks (which surrounds the Valley of the Mage), the Crystalmists, the Jotens, Hellfurnaces, the Clatspurs and Yatils; 2-3% of the total encounters therein, as a matter of fact! And we are told that a full 20% of encounters in the Sulhaut mountains, which divide the Dry Steppes from the Sea of Dust, are to use the Pleistocene encounter tables in the DMG (which, I might add, include cavemen).
What the heck are we to make of that???
We know from history that the lands of the Sea of Dust were formerly the Suel Imperium, one of the most advanced cultures on Oerth more than a thousand years ago during the Baklunish-Suloise Wars. Ditto the Baklunish realms, which stretched at least from the Dry Steppes to Ekbir and Tusmit. I find it no coincidence that the easternmost border of the warring realms is coincident with the stated range of the caveman population of the Flanaess. I see two possibilities:
1. They are an indigenous population that had been squeezed between the Baklunish/Suloise realms in the west and the Flan tribes in the east. The Flan don’t seem to have been sufficiently widespread, especially in the Sheldomar Valley, for this to be the case, but it is not improbable.
2. They are survivors of the Invoked Devastation and Rain of Colorless Fire that destroyed both the Suloise Imperium and the Baklunish Empire. Fleeing into the mountain fastnesses for safety, they subsequently descended into prehistoric barbarism over the course of a thousand years, where their kin rose to carve out new kingdoms.
I confess a certain affinity for the second scenario, which appeals to my fondness for the works of R.E. Howard, although the first certainly lends itself to the possibility of weird alien ruins that predate Baklunish, Suel, or Oeridian. Nothing says that the two need be mutally exclusive, either; picture the bedraggled survivors of the Invoked Devastation stumbling into the caves of some primitive proto-human people, without food, shelter, or the means for survival. Such exiles might well be assimilated into such a culture, uplifting it with their stock, while descending to its level technologically, except, perhaps, for a few choice relics brought along for safe-keeping…
Note that the encounter tables do not overlap the cavemen encounters with the Pleistocene encounters. There is no need, since the Pleistocene tables in the DMG have cave men well represented; we are seeing, I think, two different aspects of the same phenomenon.
In the line of peaks defining the eastern edge of the Baklunish-Suloise conflict, we see cavemen, whether the degenerate survivors of that conflict, some innocent race thrust aside by it, or a fusion of the two. In the mountains that formed the border between the two warring races, we not only see cavemen, but a full panoply of prehistoric mammals; cave-bears, spotted lions, and so on.
Given the harsh arid conditions to north and south of that mountain range, surely the Pleistocene conditions don’t extend at all beyond the mountains themselves, or even to their edge. Irish deer wouldn’t do well in a hot desert wasteland.
Perhaps here we might add yet a third scenario to explain the diffusion of cavemen along this particular line of mountains:
3. There is a caveman homeland in the Sulhauts, replete with a full host of Pleistocene fauna and flora, and they have migrated along the mountains to their present range.
I find this option to be particularly satisfying, personally, and it has the added bonus of being compatible with either of the other two options if desired (although I daresay it renders the first obsolete, being a much better story all around!). It would almost certainly be the case that, if there were such a “lost valley” somewhere in the Sulhauts, the war of annihilation between the Suel and the Baklunish would certainly prompt at least part of the population to flee. And, given their prehistoric nature and cave-dwelling predilections, it makes sense that they would follow the peaks and their attendant caves (it also makes sense that they would have found the Depths of the Oerth that lead to the Vault of the Drow, but that might be best left for another discussion).
So that’s where I find the evidence and best storytelling possibilities take me. Somewhere in the Sulhauts is a high glacial valley, inhabited by the cave-folk (themselves perhaps descendants of the ancient Baklunish-Suloise wars) who fell into barbarism almost immediately and migrated along their well-known mountains to their current range of habitation. Over the years they might have been met by, and assimilated, groups of refugees bearing unknown treasures from those ancient empires, now regarded as totems by the cave-folk, their original functions long since forgotten. Plus there is that original valley itself, still waiting to be discovered, explored, and, perhaps, plundered, by intrepid adventurers. Who knows? Some ancient treasure of the Suel, or some relic of the Bakluni, may still reposit there.
Now, if only I could figure out what those cave men were doing in the Cairn Hills, I could sleep at night.