Follow TV Tropes

Following

Medieval Prehistory

Go To

https://static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/asoiaf_mammoths.jpg
Advertisement:

Prehistory is full of creatures that could pass for fantastic; mammoths, sabre-toothed cats, dinosaurs and millions of others are strange and unusual enough to be very serviceable fantastic beasts alongside griffins, dragons and the like, while still similar enough to modern fauna not to feel too out of place in Earth-like worlds. The problem is, you might think of prehistoric human society as boring. The solution? Medieval Prehistory.

Medieval prehistory involves vaguely prehistoric plant and animal life, or climate and environmental conditions, with knights, castles, and princesses coexisting. Doesn't necessarily have to be set in Medieval Europe or a Fantasy Counterpart Culture to it, but it does have to involve a pre-industrial society. So Ancient Grome and Ancient Africa or even Mayincatec etc. are permitted. Stone Punk, which usually involves a more modern-type society, is an entirely different trope.

Advertisement:

Depending on the setting, this can potentially be anything from a fantasy world explicitly set in the Earth's real or fictional prehistory, with the prehistoric elements taking front and center, to a more conventional fantasy world with a few species of dinosaur and Ice Age megafauna added in among the usual fantasy creatures.

Subtrope of Anachronism Stew (although usually technically does not fit under that heading, due to being set in fictional universes with their own histories and timelines) and often Alternate History or Historical Fantasy, usually based on the premise that the asteroid did not wipe out the dinosaurs or that somehow other wildlife managed to survive up until the medieval era or something involving Time Travel. Don't expect the wildlife to live in the areas they did in reality.

Advertisement:

Related to Dinosaurs Are Dragons and often overlaps with Fantasy Kitchen Sink. Not to be confused with 1 Million B.C., which involves stereotypical stone-age 'cavemen' living alongside creatures such as dinosaurs, or Prehistoria, its video game equivalent. Can contain elements of The Dark Times and The Time of Myths, or Ambiguous Time Period, and Domesticated Dinosaurs.

See also Living Dinosaurs, for when dinosaurs survive all the way up to modern times.


Examples:

Comic Books

Film

  • 10,000 BC has a pyramid-building culture using mammoths as beasts of burden.
  • The B-movie Aztec Rex has the Conquistadors battling a Tyrannosaurus rex in a Mayincatec setting.
  • The Lord of the Rings:
    • The movies have their share of this. The oliphaunts seem to have been influenced by Gomphotherium, a prehistoric elephant with four tusks. The "great beasts" briefly seen pulling the giant battering ram at the Siege of Gondor are likewise modeled after Megacerops, a large horned herbivore that resembled a rhinoceros but was more closely related to horses.
    • In The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Thranduil's mount is pretty clearly a Megaloceros, a kind of large deer with colossal antlers that lived in Europe during the ice ages.
    • If Epileptic Trees apply, people may also see the Eagles as Harpagornis (which actually lived into the Middle Ages, but in New Zealand), and the Wargs could pass for either Hyaenodon or Borophagus, before The Hobbit redesigned them to be more typically wolf-like.
  • The 13th Warrior pitches Medieval Vikings against relict cavemen, but their nature as relict Neanderthals is not as clear as in the source book.

Literature

  • The Conan the Barbarian series is set in a prehistoric medieval-like society. The Hyborian Age it takes place in is supposed to be Earth's distant past, when the continents still had different shapes.
  • A few times in The Elenium, the villains use time portals to make enemies from the prehistoric past attack the protagonists. These include a Tyrannosaurus rex and a horde of "dawn men" (the common ancestor of humans and trolls in this 'verse).
  • The Garrett, P.I. novels, gumshoe-style mysteries set in a fantasy-world city, count both dinosaurs (thunder lizards) and assorted Pleistocene mammals among their Verse's typical fauna.
  • The Lord of the Rings uses this from time to time. Justified as, according to Word of God, the series is set in the Time of Myths in the distant past of the Earth.
    • The Drúedain west of Gondor differ greatly from the normal humans, and even from the nonhuman races, and it has been suggested that they are actually Neanderthals.
    • Though not explicitly so, creatures like the Mûmakil and Wargs could be seen as exaggerations of mammoths and dire wolves respectively, while the nazgûl's flying mount may be some kind of pterosaur.
  • Similarly Lyonesse and its sequel Green Pearl take place in a pre-Migration Period world with fantasy elements and a vaguely medieval culture.
  • The Reynard Cycle: Aurochs, a prehistoric breed of cattle, are used for labor in Calvaria.note 
  • A Song of Ice and Fire:
    • The series has mammoths and direwolves among the beasts living in the Grim Up North, aurochs in the main setting of Westeros, and dwarf elephants in Essos in the east.
    • A number of more elusive creatures have also been theorised to be based on prehistoric creatures — for instance, it's been hypothesized that the "unicorns" of Skagos are really the extinct one-horned rhino Elasmotherium, or that the "giants" are really an extinct species of ape, the Gigantopithecus.
    • The "terrible walking lizards" mentioned by Syrio Forel, that kill their prey with hooked claws on their hind legs and are brought from Sothoryos to Braavosi menageries, sound a lot like dromeosaurid dinosaurs. In the same dialogue, Forel claims to have seen other exotic animals, from more mundane (but still exotic to his audience) zebras and giraffes, to tigers that carry their young in pouches, and "mouse-pigs as big as cows".
    • The mysterious Coldhands, who lives (or un-lives) in the Grim Up North, is said to ride a "great elk". Most illustrators depict it as either an American or European elk, but some have chosen to paint it as a Megaloceros.
    • The Ibbenese are heavily implied to be Neanderthals, albeit ones that eventually developed a civilization, took to the sea and excelled at whaling, of all things. Interestingly, despite everyone noting their physical differences, nobody ever regards them as non-human.
  • The Atlan series places medieval European-style villages adjacent to prehistoric jungles crawling with dinosaurs.
  • North of the Dragonlands by Stephen Dedman is a medieval fantasy in which the fantastic elements are unfamiliar non-magical things that the characters are trying to understand in terms of familiar concepts; the "dragons" are dinosaurs and pterosaurs that have somehow survived from prehistoric times.
  • This trope is the main premise of Victor Milán's The Dinosaur Lords, where several species of dinosaurs are used as mounts and beasts of burden in a Medieval world, or just appear as wild animals.
  • The High Concept of Michael Crichton's The 13th Warrior is that Beowulf was actually a fantasy retelling of a conflict between Vikings and relict Neanderthals (called "Wendol") in Medieval Denmark. The limits of Wendol territory are marked by massive bear skulls, implying the late survival of cave bears in the area, as well.
  • Harry Turtledove's extensive work in Alternate History includes several pieces where the premise, or one effect of the POD, is the survival of one or several prehistoric species into historical times:
    • A Different Flesh takes places in a world where the Americas were colonized by more technologically impaired Homo erectus rather than Homo sapiens. Besides the H. erectus themselves, several species of megafauna including "hairy elephants" (mammoths), "spearfang cats" (sabertoothed cats), ground sloths and glyptodonts all survived to meet European colonists. The British even import Indian mahouts in the 18th century to tame the "hairy elephants" and use them as beasts of burden. The series was inspired by an essay of Stephen J. Gould, wondering what John Smith would have thought if he met Australopithecus in the Americas instead of modern humans.
    • In The Green Buffalo, a gang of 1891 Wyoming hunters (hired by a dinosaur paleontologist, no less) unwittingly wander into the Mesozoic through a ripple in time, then bag a Torosaurus that followed them back into the 19th century. They remain oblivious the whole time and take the dinosaur for a diseased buffalo, hence the title.
    • In Down in the Bottomlands, the Zanclean Flood 5 million years ago never happened; as a result, the Mediterranean Sea doesn't exist and there is an extensive desert miles under sea level in its place, the titular Bottomlands. Despite this distant POD, both modern humans and Neanderthals still evolved, but Neanderthals survived and developed their own technologically advanced states in Europe while humans remained in Africa and southern Asia.
    • The Maltese Elephant is a pastiche of The Maltese Falcon, except the mcguffin is a living, breathing Maltese dwarf elephant instead of a stone falcon. The elephants are said to have played a decisive role in the Great Siege of 1565.
    • The Atlantis series has the premise that the eastern coast of North America broke off and drifted to the middle Atlantic during the Mesozoic, and as a result remained uninhabited by humans (or any other mammal) until Europeans discovered it in the 15th century. While the local flightless birds are fictional, they draw obvious inspiration from New Zealand's moas and Hawaii's moa-nalos. The largest species are driven to extinction in the 19th century.
    • Running of the Bulls is another pastiche, this time of Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. Except the bulls are Triceratops. And the final twist is that the "human" characters are evolved dinosaurs and not actually human.
  • The Dance of the Tiger, by Finnish paleontologist Björn Kurtén, inverts the trope by bringing elements from Medieval folklore to the Paleolithic, instead of Paleolithic animals to Medieval times. The handwave is, naturally, that this folklore originated from distant memories of the Paleolithic. In the story, set in Sweden as the ice recedes, the Sapiens call Neanderthals "trolls", and the villains are a couple of hybrid brother warlords known as the "troll children" or "troll little devils". There is also a "troll" woman who managed to tame reindeer, but she is an oddball loner and the implication is that this knowledge will die with her, leaving Sapiens to rediscover it thousands of years later. Finally, the book takes the word schelch from Nibelungenlied and uses it as the characters name for Megaloceros. This is based on Kurtén's own speculation that the "schelch" in the poem was an actual reference to this animal.

Live-Action Television

  • Game of Thrones: Mammoths and direwolves prowl beyond the Wall. Giants are also more Neanderthal-like in this version than the books' Bigfoot-like creatures, although they are still 4 meters tall.
  • Primeval suggests that many mythical creatures were actually inspired by dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals ending up in historical times through time anomalies. It's specifically invoked with the Pristichampsus in the first episode of Season 3, which is suggested as being the true identity of Ammit from Egyptian mythology, and at the end the team all throw out suggestions for other legendary creatures that could have come from anomalies. A more literal example happens later in the same season, when a Dracorex dinosaur wanders into Medieval England, is taken for a dragon, and later travels to modern-day London with a Knight In Shining Armour intending to kill it in tow.

Mythology and Religion

  • The Bible, being quite the old book, has several references to Iron Age people living side by side with animals that a modern reader would have trouble imagining in modern day Israel: oryx, addax, hartebeest, onager, lion, leopard, bear. Some, like the lion, survived there until the literal Middle Ages. Others even later. And then there are the weird cases:
    • The re'em is a creature said to be untameable to anyone but God; it later morphed in Jewish folklore into a gigantic, mountain-sized animal with horns. It was translated as "unicorn" in the King James's Version, though some believe that the translator had a rhinoceros in mind when he used that word. Modern consensus is that the re'em is an aurochs, due to its etymological affinity with the Akkadian word rimu.
    • The behemoth is an even more massive vegetarian animal, mentioned by God to Job as an example of his power. People have speculated that it is a crocodile (despite the vegetarian part), buffalo, rhinoceros, hippopotamus or elephant. Much of the debate resides on wether the behemoth's tail, which it "moves like a cedar", is an actual tail or its penis. To some creationists, the behemoth is a sauropod dinosaur.
  • Christian creationists have a variable relationship with this trope. Some believe that they were not saved for some reason and died in the Flood (and thus lived to see civilization), others that they survived and the medieval stories of dragons and such creatures are actually accounts of dinosaurs who later died due in the postdiluvian world. Some others reject the concept of extinction altogether (because God would never make an animal and kill it or let it die) and claim that they are still alive somewhere. And further others believe that extinct animals never existed and the evidence is faked by Satanic scientists, but they are not examples of this trope.
  • The Book of Mormon mentions war horses and elephants in pre-Columbian North America. Believers claim that these are late surviving American horses and mastodons that were tamed by people, or that they are other American animals, like tapirs (which also went extinct in North America in prehistorical times, and now live in South America and Central America up to the Yucatan).

Tabletop Games

  • Dungeons & Dragons has stats for dinosaurs, dire wolves (among other "dire" beasts), mastodons, and megalodons, plus several others. Whether or not they're actually part of the setting depends on the campaign.
    • This dates back to Gary Gygax's original Greyhawk campaign from the 1970s (which was heavily altered prior to its commercial release in 1980). Since he didn't have time to run gaming sessions on an almost nightly basis and create a detailed fantasy world, he set his adventures in an alternate version of North America. The Great Lakes region was a civilized area (the cities of Greyhawk and Dyvers were expys of Chicago and Milwaukee, respectively), while the western part of the continent was considered a "land that time forgot" full of cavemen, dinosaurs, and other prehistoric creatures.
    • The Eberron setting has the Talenta Plains, where nomadic tribes of halflings travel on the backs of dinosaurs.
    • The Hollow World of Mystara is home to several classical- or Dark Ages-era civilizations, existing alongside vast tracts of dinosaur-populated wilderness. Invoked, in a sense, as the Immortals (the gods of the setting) use the Hollow World as a place to preserve creatures and cultures that would have gone extinct in the outside world, and they've been at it for a long time.
    • For all the traditional fantasy critters to be found in it, the original, AD&D 1st Edition Monster Manual had no sea serpents, as such. Under the "dinosaur" listing, it did have plesiosaurs, though, which are functionally nearly the same thing. No doubt a lot of homespun campaigns used them for precisely that purpose.
  • The bestiary in GURPS Banestorm includes "bushwolves", "paladins", and "treetippers" — from their descriptions and illustrations, they're evidently thylacines, glyptodonts, and giant ground sloths by other names. "Striders" may be one of the many species of flightless predatory bird that appear from time to time in the fossil record.
  • Pathfinder:
    • Dinosaurs exist as powerful apex predators in the primeval Realm of the Mammoth Lords and the trackless Mwangi Expanse, as well as in the swamps and jungles of the Lost World of Deep Tolguth, deep Beneath the Earth. They serve as the most powerful animals to exist without magical backing.
    • The game tends to describe Dire Beasts as larger, more powerful prehistoric versions of their smaller counterparts when possible. Dire apes, for instance, are Gigantopithecus, while dire bears are cave and short-faced bears, dire hyenas are Hyaenodon, dire boars are Daeodon, dire crocodiles are Sarcosuchus and so onnote .
    • "Megafauna" serves as a catch-all terms for large, prehistoric animals that are neither dinosaurs or dire versions of something else, and include the giant turtle Archelon, the primitive whale Basilosaurus and a variety of large, prehistoric mammals — including, of course, mammoths. Giant prehistoric fish, such as Dunkleosteus, appear as well. Many of these creatures are found in the Realm of the Mammoth Lords, the Mwangi Expanse and Deep Tolguth alongside dinosaurs, but they're more likely to be encountered elsewhere in the world.
  • Ixalan in Magic: The Gathering is a continent where the Mayincatec locals coexist with dinosaurs, although the setting isn't technically "medieval" (Ixalan's plane is more of a "conquest of the New World" period, although it's not entirely clear who's conquering who).
  • Exalted: A variety of dinosaurs and Cenozoic megafauna inhabits Creation alongside humans, elementals and weirder things. Among others, there are tyrant lizards (Tyrannosaurus rex), raptors (originally featherless, which was later corrected), ox-dragons (non-specific ceratopsids), siege lizards (Stegosaurus), mammoths and saber-toothed tigers in the far North, emperor sloths (megatheres) in the jungles of the East, and ferocious hellboars (entelodonts).

Video Games

  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has sabre-toothed cats, cave bears and mammoths, as well as humans/cat people/lizard people/elves with a culture/tech level equivalent to the late Roman Empire.
  • World of Warcraft is a Fantasy Kitchen Sink setting with many medieval and Tolkienesque elements. Many creatures resemble or are directly based on prehistoric animals: there are raptors, sabretooth cats, woolly rhinos and mammoths; the kodo beast resembles a brontothere and the plainstrider look like a terror bird. Also, there is Un'Goro crater, a Lost World filled with pterosaurs, stegosaurs and Devilsaurs (which are, essentially, Tyrannosaurus rex).
  • Age of Conan has mammoths and woolly rhinos along with civilized humans. It takes place in the Hyborian Age.
  • The Spiritual Sequel Conan Exiles also has mammoths (more realistic-looking this time unlike the Mûmakil-like version in Age of Conan) in the north, in addition to sabertooths and dire wolves. The aggressive "jungle birds" are either oversized shoebills or terror birds.
  • Age of Mythology is also set in the Time of Myths but is quite subdued in this regard, just featuring aurochs in northern maps (which actually lived in Europe through the Ancient and Medieval period), and giving the Norse tamed muskoxen as their trading unit despite muskoxen becoming extinct in Scandinavia around 9,000 years ago. A wild muskox unit was also planned at one point but was left unfinished, likely to be featured in tundra maps instead of the misplaced aurochs. Some fan mods take it up a notch and add mammoths edited from the game's elephants.

Webcomics

  • The Empire of Blood in The Order of the Stick makes extensive use of domesticated dinosaurs as mounts, beasts of burden and war animals. Specifically, Allosaurus, Pteranodon and Brontosaurusnote  are all seen at various points.

Western Animation

  • The Dinosaur Kingdom in Mighty Magiswords.
  • Early Man pitches a Stone Age tribe against a Bronze Age society that has tamed mammoths and muskoxen among other things.

Real Life

  • This trope is more justified when it is about Pleistocene animals, because they existed alongside all animals that exist today (minus domestic ones), and in habitats that still exist today. From a biological point of view, it wouldn't be much less plausible for a mammoth to live in Medieval Europe than for an elephant to do it in Medieval India. Furthermore, there is increasing evidence that some animals we commonly associate with the Pleistocene actually survived in isolated areas well into the Holocene, rather than all disappearing completely at the 12,000 BC mark.
  • The extinction of some megafauna actually lines very suspiciously with the timeline of human settlement, particularly in islands that were not settled until proto-historical or historical times like the greater Antilles (c. 5000 BC), New Caledonia (1600 BC), Madagascar (Roman times) and New Zealand (13th-15th centuries AD). In Madagascar, the elephant birds lingered in the central highlands until the Late Middle Ages and they are believed to have inspired the Roc bird myth.
  • The wooly mammoth survived in Alaska's St. Paul Island, Wrangel Island and the lower Lena River in Siberia until 6000-4000 years ago. A popular factoid is that when the last mammoth died in Wrangel Island, the Keops pyramid was already between 500 and 1000 years old. Unsurprisingly, claims of further survival in Siberia and Alaska are a favorite theme of 19th century travelers and modern cryptozoologists.
    • There is an Ancient Egyptian tomb painting depicting a pygmy-sized pachyderm. This could either be a dwarf mammoth, a Mediterranean dwarf elephant — or just Artistic License on the painter's part.
    • Elephants were drawn in northern Russia in Early Modern maps, prompting claims that these are post-Medieval mammoths. Funnily enough, they actually arised as representations of walruses. Southerners bought walrus ivory for centuries before learning of what animal it actually came from, and just assumed it was something like an elephant because elephants also make ivory.
    • Things only got more confusing when actual mammoth ivory began to be traded west after the Russian conquest of Siberia in the 17th century. Many tusks came from frozen carcasses and the traders assumed that the animals had died recently. Mammoth ivory is still a valuable commodity today because, unlike elephant ivory, its trade is not banned internationally due to mammoths being already extinct.
    • When Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark west, he told them to keep an eye open for living mammoths, mastodons, and the ground sloth Megalonyx, which he believed was some kind of giant cat. The reason was two-fold: extinction was still a novel concept in the early 1800s, and Jefferson had taken personal offense to a book that claimed New World animals were universally smaller and weaker than Old World animals, so he entertained the idea of bagging a mammoth and sending it to Europe to prove it wrong.
  • Besides mammoths, the Taymir peninsula (north of Siberia's Arctic Circle) and the Lena region also acted as refuge for other Siberian mammals between 8000 and 4000 years ago, such as Old World muskoxen, Siberian horses and steppe bison. Horse bones were unearthed in Medieval Inuit settlements dated to the 9th and 10th centuries AD, prompting debate over wether they are very late Lena horses or domestic horses introduced by the Yakuts. About bison, some might have survived even longer in the Baikal region, but they are generally believed to have been modern European bison.
  • The giant Pleistocene deer, Megaloceros, survived until 9000-7000 years ago in Scotland, the Isle of Man, and northern Siberia. People have suggested that it survived longer in Ireland, due to the presence of "giant black deer" in Irish folklore and many poorly dated (but exquisitely preserved) skeletons found in bogs; and in Ukraine, where Scythian artifacts have been uncovered with strangely large and elaborate antlers. The smaller Praemegaceros, which as its name suggest preceded Megaloceros in continental Europe, survived in isolation in Sardinia until 5500 BC.
    • As said above, Kurtén believed that the Nibelungenlied contained a reference to a Megaloceros in Medieval Austria. The line in question relates how Siegfried went on a hunting trip and slew a Wisent (bison), an Elch (elk/moose), four Ure (aurochs), and a mysterious "single fierce Schelch", which sounds like something like an elk, but different. Others have suggested that the Schelch is a wild horse. The Schelch (and the dragon for that matter) could still be directly inspired by Pleistocene megafauna in a different way, due to megafauna remains being common in caves of the area. The Klagenfurt dragon skull found in 1335, for example, was actually of a wooly rhinoceros.
  • The gomphothere Cuvieronius, the last American proboscidean, died out in Colombia 7000 years ago.
    • Some people claim that a couple of Roman-era Mayan reliefs in Copan, Honduras, represent tamed elephants and are either introduced Asian elephants or late surviving gomphotheres/ mastodons. The second is particularly popular among the LDS Church, due to the presence of American war elephants in the Book of Mormon.
    • In the 19th century, American mastodons were also claimed to have survived in North America until the Middle Ages and to have coexisted with the Mound Builders, but all evidence of this is now deemed inconclusive or an outright hoax (e.g., the "mastodon pipes").
  • There is a Sumerian figurine that allegedly depicts a Sivatherium, though it seems to actually be just a deer.
  • Because lions feature very prominently in Neolithic and Ancient Balkan and Greek art and literature, it was proposed once that the Pleistocene European cave lion survived there until historical times. However, later bone findings revealed that Balkan lions were actually the result of a short-lived invasion of Asian lions into Europe, just before the Sea of Marmara flooded and isolated them there.
  • Dire wolves survived in the Ozarks until only 4000 years ago.
  • Some Chinese paleontologists claim that megafauna (both cold climate and tropical) survived in China well into the Holocene, and that Shang Dynasty artifacts depicting elephants and rhinoceroses actually represent extinct genera like Palaeoloxodon and Elasmotherium. It should be noted that the Shang Dynasty territory in central China is thousands of miles north from the recent range of modern Asian elephants and rhinoceroses. However, the consensus is that the presented evidence is either poorly dated or misinterpreted.
  • Both bison and aurochs, the wild ancestor of cattle, were known to the Greeks and Romans and survived in Central Europe through the Middle Ages. The last aurochs died in Poland in 1627, while the European bison was rescued from imminent extinction, also in Poland, in the 1920s.

Top