Thursday, May 28, 2015

Applying History #1: The Island Builders

Welcome to Applying History. Some of you may be familiar with The Culture Column, which provided write-ups of fictional cultures ready to be dropped into a setting with little adaptation necessary. Applying History is a little bit different. Rather than supply you just with fictional cultures, each article will go over a real one, and then look at the ways that this culture can serve as inspiration for worldbuilding.
This month we’re starting out with the Uros of Lake Titiqaqa. In a manner reminiscent of Tenochtitlan, the Uros made (and make) use of artificial islands. Unlike the Aztecs, however, they use these islands (between thirty-five and forty-two over history) for living space rather than as gardens.

Other names: Qhas Qut suñi (People of the Lake); Lupihaques (Sons of the Sun); Kappi (Quecha: “Hunter”).
History: Predating all other people around Lake Titiqaqa, the Uros moved to their islands for defensive purposes, much like the early Venetians built up the Venetian Lagoon to escape aggressors. Despite this, they were eventually conquered by the Incan Empire in the 13th Century, which exacted taxes (one cane filled with rice, as the Uros were considered very poor) and occasionally took slaves. Later, the Uros began to intermarry with neighboring peoples like the Ayamaras and began converting to Catholicism.
Presently there are about 250 families living on 35 islands, but many are beginning to move to the mainland. Speeding up this process is that modern schools for the children are not located on the islands, and many have left in order to move closer to the schools. At least 2,600 Uros live in Bolivia.
The Islands: There have generally been between 35 and 45 artificial islands on Lake Titiqaqa at any one time. The islands are each made of a pair of meter-thick layers of totora reeds. The first is made entirely from roots, and the second out of crisscrossed reeds. As the reeds slowly disintegrate they are replaced by new reeds on top. This is a near-continuous process except during the driest time of the year, so that a new layer has effectively been added every three months, and after thirty years the island itself must be entirely replaced.
Because of the islands’ spongy composition newcomers can experience difficulty in walking across them. The islands are anchored to the bottom of the lake with sticks and ropes. Even so the larger islands may drift about in a small area. The majority of the islands are about thirty meters wide and house two to three families. Larger islands may house up to ten families, or serve other functions— Toranipata Island has a shop for souvenirs and a museum with stuffed animals. The smallest islands serve as outhouses, where waste matter is left out in the open to dry, in order to avoid contaminating the lake.
Architecture: The Uros build their houses from the totora reed. Their houses are single-storied and usually have only one room. One corner is set aside specifically for kitchen activities.
Craftsmanship: After their islands, the Uros are most well-known for their handicrafts, including their embroidery, which they continue to trade today. Many of their creations are made from the totora reed, such as replica reed boats (with little people to go with them), quilts, furniture, and real boats.
Cuisine: The main source of protein in the Uros diet comes from fish— catfish, carachi, pupfish, and (in modern times) trout and kingfish. They also eat birds such as ducks, flamingos, and seagulls, and raise cattle on the mainland.
Their most important resource may be the totora reeds. The white bottoms, which they call chullo, are a major component of their diet (the rest of the reed is inedible). It supplies them with iodine and is an effective counter to hangovers. Tea is also made from the reeds. Not only this, but they have also used totora and carache to trade for other foods which they cannot otherwise obtain, such as clothes, fruit, potatoes, and quinoa.
In the past the Uros cooked using heated stoves, but they now use wood-burning clay ovens. The Uros have also cooked with fires on piles of stones.
Domesticated animals: Cats provide pest control. Cormorants catch fish. Ibis are used like chickens, being kept for both their eggs and their meat.
Medicine: The totora reed can be wrapped around the body to relieve pain or opened and pressed against the skin to provide a cool sensation on hot days.
Mythology: Lake Titiqaqa is the source of life, not only where the Uros make have survived for generations but where the sun and first people were born. Spirits were said to still live in the depths of the lake.
They consider themselves the descendants of Mama Qota, the Sacred Mother. The ancestors of the Uros, who existed in the time before the sun existed, are said to have had black blood which kept them from drowning, feeling the cold, or being struck by lightning. These beings (not considered fully human) also called themselves Uros, which means “wild animal” in Quechua. Neighboring tribes sometimes believed that the properties of the black blood were still present in the Uros, but both sides agree that the trait was lost as the Uros intermarried with other peoples.
Notable Sources:
The “Uros” entry on

Worldbuilding: The first thing that pops out at me, besides the very obvious people-living-on-manmade-islands thing, is their animals. How many settings have you come across in your life where anybody has domesticated birds for fishing? I mean, if we’re in a fantasy world then I don’t see why we can’t justify Fantasy Russians domesticating bears for fishing, but at the very least we should be seeing some birds doing it. Maybe nobody’s ever had bears do more than ride a unicycle in real life, but here’s an actual culture which has got birds doing the fishing for them, so I don’t think that anybody can complain about a lack of realism.
Getting back to the manmade islands, though, could such a thing exist elsewhere? Maybe people who live on the sea, perhaps around islands or off the coast of the mainland. Or maybe they go up and down rivers on these things, island-building trader folk. Do they think that the earth is unholy, and to touch it would be to contaminate their souls? Or perhaps it’s simply a weird kind of boat to them and that’s all.
Perhaps they are employed by another group to make and tend to floating gardens, like what the Aztecs had, in order to increase the amount of arable land.

Another idea is obvious: a nonhuman species based on the attributes of the Uros’ mythical ancestors. Those are curious beings. It’s normal enough that such beings can’t drown, and it’s reasonable to give them resistance to cold temperatures, but the protection from lightning is an interesting touch. The protection from the cold also means that we could, say, move them into a northerly clime. They don’t bother with thick furs or anything like that because their black blood protects them from the cold on its own. Why not go with an Inuit-Uros mashup?

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