Thursday, May 6, 2010

Evolution in Pal-ul-don

Here is a copy of an article I had printed in Frank Westwood's Fantastic Worlds of ERB:

Lost worlds—remote or near-inaccessible corners of our modern Earth where races and lifeforms still survive from prehistoric times have been a staple of fantastic literature since popular culture embraced the existence of dinosaurs. The term “dinosaur” was coined in 1842, by paleontologist Richard Owen, following the official recognition of the first discovered species, Iguanodon and megalosaurus, in the 1820s. As more of the remains of more incredible species were unearthed, it is hardly surprising that, along with the public’s fascination with prehistoric beasts, there was more than a little speculation that the living animals might still be alive somewhere. After all, there was still enough virgin territory at the close of the 19th century to make the possibility of fantastic monsters roaming the vastness of remote wilderness regions seem viable. Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), is certainly the earliest well-known example of lost world fiction. The prehistoric realm within the earth’s hollow center, which Verne postulated, came replete with oceans infested with giant aquatic reptiles, forest of giant mushrooms and conifers, and a variety of fauna long extinct on the surface world, including an apparent subhumaniod race of giants. Verne did not give his lost world the elaborate detail which Burroughs lavished on his own, though the novel does contain a memorable sea-battle between plesiosaur and ichthyosaur, with both animals described from rough engravings and the limited scientific knowledge by which they were known at the time.

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1911), the remote region was this time a hidden plateau in South America, where lifeforms from various prehistoric eras had managed to survive. Besides the even richer hidden lands envisioned by Burroughs, there have since been a number of others populating the movies, pulps, and comics, King Kong’s Skull Island being perhaps the most famous.

Nearly all these imagined realms, however, have two fairly common threads running through them. One, the lost world is commonly assumed to occupy a comparatively small land area. This is necessary in order to explain its lack of discovery. The problem with this is, of all the lifeforms which have lived on earth through the ages, those still living constitute around one percent. Such a small surface area would be unable to accommodate even a fraction of the ancient species usually found inhabiting therein, particularly such large and active creatures as living dinosaurs (Pellucidar is one notable exception to this, particularly since its land to water ratio makes it a larger world within a smaller one.) The other major problem is that the species found within the lost world appear virtually unchanged in 65 million years (or however long), and this is hardly feasible since evolution seldom if ever stops in its tracks, even in so-called living fossils. The dinosaur descendents would therefore not be the stegosaurus and iguanodon that Doyle’s Professor Challenger encountered, but new species radically altered to adapt to their changed environment.

ERB had the distinction of being the creator of three separate lost worlds, Pellucidar, Pal-ul-don, and Caspak. Though Pellucidar and Caspak had their own separate series, Burroughs confined Pal-ul-don to a single novel, Tarzan the Terrible,

the eighth novel in the Tarzan series. Even so, Burroughs appears to have been well ahead of his time when he invented Pal-ul-don, one of the most unusual lost worlds in literature. To begin with, it is clear from the many examples of Pal-ul-donian fauna that evolution has not come to a complete halt within this hidden valley somewhere within the Belgian Congo. Tarzan himself notes that even species with which he is familiar show either a form unaltered for countless ages, or an entirely separate line of evolution. The latter would certainly be the case among many species isolated from their parent species since prehistoric times. The most striking Pal-ul-donian example of this is, of course, the Gryf, the evolved triceratops which has taken up a carnivorous existence. Burroughs describes the Gryf as brilliantly colored, with vivid blue band circling the eyes, a yellow face below the hood, or transverse crest, this being bright red, with three horns ivory. The dinosaur had a beaklike maw filled with powerful dagger-teeth designed for the obvious purpose. The blunt hoofed toes of the ancestral dinosaur have become talons on the gryf for holding and sustaining prey. The gryf will feast on lion, antelope or humanoid as readily as on plant material. In contrast, Burroughs also describes another species of triceratops in Tarzan at the Earth’s Core, the Gyor of Pellucidar. Unlike the triceratops of Pal-ul-don, the Gyor is an herbivore of similar but muted coloration, and is essentially unchanged from its surface counterpart of sixty-five million years ago. This is undoubtedly due to the even greater isolation within the hollow earth, Pellucidar being virtually a separate planet altogether.

Of the remaining Pal-ul-donian species Burroughs describes, the Ja, or spotted lion, is the best example of a species that has remained unaltered in isolation, since the environment within the lost world has remained nearly the same. Ancestors of modern lions were almost certainly as spotted as leopards, as both Tarzan and Burroughs speculate, since all lions are born with faint rosette-like markings, and Pal-ul-don’s lions continue to retain their spots into adulthood. A more striking example of evolutionary adaptation is the fond in the related species, the Jato. This animal is a black-striped hybridization of lion and saber-tooth, which, surprisingly, is smaller than a true lion. It is interesting to speculate that the last saber-tooth cats in Africa misht have crossed with lions in order to preserve their lineage. Though the saber-tooth feline megateron (which was actually smaller than a modern lion) did nonce roam the forests and plains of Africa, some paleontologists have speculated the actual tigers might have done so as well. This possibility has largely been shelved however, since confirmed tiger remains are virtually unknown outside of Asia, and lion and tiger skeletons are virtually indistinguishable. But if the controversial bones found in Africa were infact those of tigers, then Pal-ul-don’s sabertooths’ may have been the three-way mixture of lion, tiger, and saber-tooth. As feasible as this may sound, however, it is simply not scientifically possible. Crosses between lions and tigers (“tiglons” and “ligers”) are sterile. Saber-tooths, which constitute an entirely separate genus from modern felines, could likely not even breed with lions, let alone produce a viable species. Burroughs saber-tooth hybrids are, therefore, impossible, but they nonetheless illustrate Burroughs competent application of the natural forces of evolution and adaptations, aside from some errors which biologically prevent the existence of jatos.

The other beast worth mentioning in Burroughs novel is the strange carnivorous reptile which Korak battles and slays in the great barrier swamp. This odd creature is “like no living thing he had ever before seen, although it possibly resembled the crocodile more than anything which he was familiar”. The book never identifies what species this “frightful survivor of some extinct progenitor” is, though perhaps, like the gryf, this creature had also evolved so that it precisely resembled nothing from the fossil record. It also demonstrates Burroughs’ apparent knowledge of the close kinship between modern crocodiles and the dinosauria. (Note: recently, there have been discoveries in Africa of a genus of theropod, or bidpedal carnivorous dinosaur, that possessed elongated snouts not unlike the crocodilia. The eigthies saw the discovery of Baryonyx, a theropod that was partially aquatic, and fed on fish. In the late nineties, the related species Suchamimus or “crocodile mimic” was unearthed. The African finback theropod spinosaurus, which made an appearance in the third Jurassic Park film, is thought to have been a member of this genus as well, and was portrayed with a similar snout in the film, though the actual head of the creature is unkown. It is entirely feasible that members of this genus might have survived into persisted into Pal-ul-don’s swamp, thopugh Burroughs himself could not have been aware of them.)

Unfortunately, Burroughs single novel did not allow him to develop Pal-ul-don further. Tarzan never returned to the lost land in any of the original novels, although he did revisit Pal-ul-don in many of the stories concocted by many of the comics writers over the years. The most notable of these writers seems to be Russ Manning, who took Burroughs’ hero to the lost land a number of times in the Sunday strips. Manning did indeed allow Tarzan to explore Pal-ul-don further, adding his own embellishments as to how the strange world worked. He also invented a Weiroo-like race of winged humanoids, who, like their Caspakian counterparts, were a race entirely of males, and who constituted an even greater threat to the women of Pal-ul-don than rampaging Tor-o-don bulls. It was Manning’s concept of Pal-ul-don existing in its own separate time-frame which is most notable, however. This invention may have been in part due to the fact that the existence of a hidden valley full of prehistoric beasts and races, remaining undiscovered in modern Africa, seemed less feasible in the later 1960s than when Burroughs wrote. (This is a major reason why the pulpish adventure fantasy, concerning lost worlds and hidden races has severely declined over the years, but that’s another story.)

Burroughs describes Pal-ul-don as a region “where every known species of bird and beast appeared to have sought refuge from the encroaching numbers of men since the first ape shed its hair and ceased to walk on its knuckles.” As noted earlier, such an abundance of wildlife inhabiting a comparatively small valley does not seem very feasible, though Burroughs describes few species in the novel other than the gryf, the famed carnivorous triceratops. In contrast, in Manning’s strips, Pla-ul-don appears to be as rich in primeval fauna as Pellucidar-hardly likely given its much smaller land surface. But Mannings’s concept of a separate time-space gives him a way out: if visitors to Pal-ul-don actually traveled back through time, then the lost land of Pal-ul-don, could, like Pellucidar, be much larger within than without, perhaps even continent-size, and this would allow for the vast diversity of fauna, in Manning’s version at least.

At fist glance, Manning’s time concept may seem inconsistent with Burroughs, given the evolutionary changes wrought upon the gryf. This is not necessarily so, however, if one notes that Manning’s Pal-ul-don does not appear to reside within the Mesozoic (dinosaur) era any more than does Burroughs, but somewhere within the Cenozoic, in order to accommodate the coexistence of ancient mammals and humanoids. The millions of years it took mammals to diversify into the vast array of creatures today provides more than enough time for creatures like the triceratops to develop carnivorous habits. Thus, the dinosaurs of Pal-ul-don must have already been present when mammals, such as the jato, arrived sometime later.

Manning’s time concept, tough, remains an interesting one, and it might provide an explanation for the humanoid races of Pal-ul-don, that Burroughs himself never thought of. Burroughs describes the two dominant races of Pal-ul-don, the black-furred Waz-don, and the white-skinned, more civilized Ho-don as “pithacantrophines”, though the creature given that name by earlier paleontology, commonly called Java Man, bears little resemblance to these ficticious races. There is also the Tor-o-don race, a race hideous beings with fur and fangs. Burroughs describes the Tor-o-dons as resembling Java man now known as a type of Homo Erectus, modern man’s own supposed ancestors. Tarzan himself observes that they are “a truer example of the pithecantropi than either the Ho-don or the Waz-don; possibly the precursor of them both. Pal-ul-don’s two higher races could then be evolved forms of pithecanthropus, only belonging to a branch of evolution separate from that which gave rise to human’s as we know them. But since no known humanoid ever possessed the long prehensile tails sported by Pal-ul-don’s prehistoric races, another explanation presents itself.

Primates sporting prehensile tails occur in the New World tropics only. Modern anthropoids lack any tail whatsoever, as did man’s own direct ancestors. How could Pal-ul-don’s humanoids develop? Harry Harrison’s popular alternate prehistory novel West of Eden may provide an answer. In it, the author postulates an earth on which the reign of the dinosaurs continued unbroken, allowing one species, an evolved tylosaurus, to gain sentience. But during North America’s brief period of isolation as an island continent, the dinosaurs did die out there, allowing mammals to diversify, thus preserving the best of both worlds. The “humans” of Harrison’s alternate reality are descended from the New World primates. Though human enough in appearance, the young of the Tanu are born with vestigial tails that disappear well before adulthood. Harrison’s second novel in this series introduces another race, the Paramutan, who dwell near the arctic and sport both a coat of thick, silky fur over a dense layer of fat, and a long prehensile tail into adulthood. It is a well-established fact that Africa and South America were connected during prehistoric times. If Pal-ul-don existed in a separate time-space, as it does in Manning’s version, then perhaps a land bridge connecting the two continents might still exist at that time, allowing both Old and New world faunas to intermingle. The phororhacas and giant sloth in Manning’s strips—both of them distinctly South American lifeforms, support this idea. Pal-ul-don’s humanoid races then, might well have developed entirely separate from the ancestors of modern man.

Manning was not consistent with Burroughs in some details, however, and this is evident in his use of the Pal-ul-donian language. Burroughs developed a credible vocabulary for his fictional races, complete with its own grammatical rules. In the preface to his glossary in Tarzan the Terrible, Burroughs notes that “the names of all male hairless pithecantropi begin with a consonant, have an even number of syllables, and end with a consonant, while the names of while the names of females of the same species begin with a vowel, have an odd number of syllables, and end with a vowel. On the contrary, the names of all black pithecantropi, while having an even number of syllables, begin with a vowel and end with a consonant; while females of the species have an odd number of syllables in the names which begin always with a consonant, and end with a vowel.” Thus, according to these rules, a male member of the Waz-don could not have a name such as Bu-don(“moon-man”), as in Manning’s Sunday Tarzan strip, although a male member of the Ho-don could. Adhering strictly to this fairly complicated set of rules would be rather difficult, and seemingly unnecessary in concocting stories for the comics, though. Manning was able to make some good use of this invented vocabulary. Some terms coined by Manning, but based upon Burroughs fictional language are as follows:

Names of Individuals

Mu-ja (Strong Lion)-- a Tor-o-don chief. He forced Tarzan and Bu-don to battle


O-ro-a (like-flower-light)—a Ho-don girl, daughter of In-jar-in

Ma-don(Child-man)---High priest and wizard of Pele-ul-ved, father to O-ro-a(This person was affected with achondrplesi or dwarfism, hence his name)

Jar-za(Strange-girl)—a pale-furred Waz-don girl with golden tresses. The Waz-don of Kor-ul-dan used her to impersonate Jane, and thus blackmailed Tarzan into aiding them against the Ho-don

In-jar-in(Strange-dark-strange) High priestess of the Hodon of the city of Pele-ul-ved. She was ruthless and cruel, and had Bal and Jane thrown to Jatos in Pele-ul-ved’s arena.

Bal(gold) A young Ho-don warrior of Pele-ul-Ved, O-ro-a’s beloved

Bu-don(moon-man) A Waz-don warrior. Fierce but honorable, Bu-don was once a bitter rival of Tarzan’s, but later earned the latter’s respect. He helped Tarzan and Jane escape Pal-ul-don, but was fatally wounded by a jato.

Bu-guru (Moon-terrible) High priest of Kor-lur and father of Bu-don. Unlike his son, Bu-guru was unscrupulous. Though Tarzan spared him from execution, Bu-guru later tried to seal the ape-man and his friends in the lair of giant worm, but ended up being devoured by the creature

Jad-guru-ho(The-Terrible-White) A huge albino gryf worshiped by the Hodon of Pele-ul-ved. Ma-don through Tarzan into his lair beneath the temple, but Tarzan used the beast to rescue Jane, Bal and O-ro-a.

Om-sog-dak(Long-eating-fat) a monstrous wormlike “deity”. This was creature Bu-guru sought to appease, but ended up falling victim to it himself.

Place Names

Kor-ul-dan (Gorge of rock)—A Waz-don cliff-village

Ta-lur(Tall City)—A Ho-don city

Pele-ul-Ved(Valley of Mountains)—name of another Ho-don city, and the volcano-studded valley surrounding it.

(Cliff-city)—another Waz-don village


Jad-ben-ko(The-Great Mighty)---Indricotherium, a form of giant hornless rhino, the largest mammal ever to walk the earth

Garth—T-rex (note: this term was originally used throughout the Dell Tarzan comics run, and may or may not have originated with Manning. It was recently used in a Dark Horse comic in (incorrect)reference to the tyrannosaurus of Pellucidar.)

Hacker—Phororhacas, a giant carnivorous bird of Miocene, called a Dyal in Pellucidar.

Of course, Burroughs was interested in telling romantic fictions, not hard scientific speculations on evolutionary biology, when he wrote his novels. But his knowledge of how the forces of evolution worked (he taught paleontology briefly, among his many jobs prior to becoming a writer) enabled him to create worlds that were rich in detail, especially since one considers the knowledge accumulated, since this puts Pal-ul-don, in particular, well ahead of the lost worlds created by such pioneers of lost world novels as Verne and Doyle. Though many of Burroughs’ inventions are clearly flights of fancy, much of what he created reflects an understanding of the principles of evolution well beyond his predecessors.

(Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally ran in issue 46 of Fantastic Worlds)