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The Rodent Empire by Seth Deitch
Beavers. Some early naturalists even thought they were intelligent. And what if they were? Unlike humans, beavers appear to have a natural instinct to build things. Perhaps nomadic beavers would be unheard of, as cities and large engineering projects are formed from the beginning of the Beaver civilization. What would our world look like? How would the European react? Let us imagine such a world.
c. 100,000 years ago
Beavers native to the region of North America east of the Mississippi river develop a form of symbolic communication that can be taught over generations. Already a cooperative species, they become more so. In Europe, Asia and Africa, Humans have already been benefiting from that same discovery for a very long time. The difference between the species is that the beavers are already builders by instinct.
20,000-15,000 years ago
Asian immigrants into North America settle along the west coast as far south as northern California. They encounter Beavers only rarely, but it is obvious to them that they are unlike other animals.
2,000 years ago
The Beavers have created several powerful nations in the east with great modifications to the land and waterways. The region is covered with artificial lakes, great earthen mounds and wooden structures. There are highways of pounded earth and stone and/or wooden rails leading from the dense pine forests into the green river valleys. These transport timber into their heartlands on vehicles drawn by bison power. There is already in place at this time a tree farming industry. While they have scattered cultures in the west, humans have never been a significant presence in the east. South America remains empty of either beavers or humans.
12,000 years ago
South America is colonized by Polynesians.
500 years ago
The first Europeans arrive in the West Indies. They are alarmed by what they discover in the few small beaver villages of that region. They shoot and skin a few Beavers and are retaliated against. Only a few make it back to Europe with their story. Only after landings are made on the mainland, will the true magnitude of the beaver culture become known. In several ways, the Beavers will be technologically in advance of the Europeans, but the humans have gunpowder and firearms and are descended from a much more predatory species.
440 years ago
There have been some limited and temporary settlements by humans in the continent of the Beavers, but much better luck in South America. The Pope declares that the Beavers must be Christianized. Needless to say, the stage is set for all Hell to break loose.
The Mississippi valley is filled with shallow artificial lakes linked by canals and crisscrossed by wooden causeways. There are fairly large communities on both land and water. On the site of OTL Chicago is the capital of a great empire. Humans can not use the language of its inhabitants, so we will call it "Beaveria". Beaveria is not the only great nation of the beavers, but it is the strongest. The other nations look to it for cues and in some way or another, they all owe it tribute.
The year is 1600, and for a century, humans have harassed communities on the east and gulf coasts. The Beavers have had some problems width humans in the west for some centuries, but they have been more of a nuisance than a threat. These eastern humans are far more in earnest in their desire to possess the Beaver lands and to have them worship the nailed up human.
While the concept of the nailed up man is unimpressive to them, the concept of the metal nail is, and recently, they have started to practice the art of blacksmithing. Before the coming of the eastern humans, they used no metal. Even their grandest structures used wooden pegs, complex joinery or several of a wide variety of mortars to hold them together. For the first time, this culture has taken up the practice of mining. Not only have the humans brought them the nail, but also the sword and the gun.
The only major human settlements are on the Islands of Cuba and Hispaniola, which had had only a sparse population of Beavers that they were able to exterminate. Facing difficulties in the northland, Spain has set about conquering South America. The British and the French, however are expanding into the Caribbean.
Farther north, no European ship can find safe landing without being sunk by Beavers within a very short time, for the Beavers are very skilled swimmers. Some of the sunken ships have been recovered and studied by Beaver engineers. They wonder what the rivers of Europe are like. The first Beaver made ocean going vessels are constructed around 1650.
While there were great difficulties involved in penetrating the northern continent, South America was a somewhat more manageable problem for the Europeans. The inhabitants were human and lower in population than in OTL. The Spanish, Portuguese, English, Dutch and French all want a piece of the action in the New World. The competition is somewhat rougher than in OTL because there is less to go around. There is a certain amount of enslavement of the Polynesian natives, much deal making and back stabbing and even some all out war. All the while, the powerful beaver empire looms from the north.
By 1700 there are several well established colonies. Portugal and Spain have split Brazil into northern and southern segments. The Portuguese segment is smaller, but has more arable land. The French have a section of Mexico including the Yucatan, over which they are at war with England. The English solidly control a region that includes OTL Colombia and Venezuela, it is called Virginia. The Dutch have half of Hispaniola with the French controlling the other half. Spain controls Cuba.
Meanwhile, in North America, the Beavers have experimented with trans-Atlantic voyages, but have met with only very limited success. Only two of ten attempts to cross the ocean have returned and only one of those resulted in a colonization attempt. That was the region of the Gambia River and they actually held it for a decade before being wiped out by the French burning down almost every forest in the region. It hardly matters, they have bigger fish to fry. The Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea are lousy with humans who are planning to overrun their countries if something isn't done soon.
In a shockingly short time, the largest Beaver city ever grows on the site of OTL New Orleans. It is primarily a military installation, highly fortified. Huge sections of the Mississippi delta region were completely denuded of trees in order to create the gigantic fortress. The first Beaver ships seen in the gulf are of odd design, they have large doors right at the waterline. These doors can drop down and release a flood of armed swimming Beaver soldiers. From well outside of cannon range, one of these ships could release a highly effective boarding party. These vessels were also armed with devices rather like ballistas that could carry a variety of explosive warheads.
By 1710, the Beavers are starting to seriously erode European sea power. The French are on the verge of giving up on the New World and the Dutch are seriously re-evaluating the value of their investment. Perhaps the English and the Spanish are in a better position to fight.
- The absence of "Native Americans" in South America is explained by the fact that the Beavers have kept them mostly restricted to the far north and northwestern regions. They are never a significant presence south of OTL Northern California, therefore no human population is ever established in South America until it is discovered by Polynesians. Beavers are not established there because the lands between are unattractive to them and they have no sea power until much later in their history.
- If ever a creature was pre-adapted for civilization, surely that creature must be the Beaver. Their first true cities rose even before they had completely mastered language. Even their oldest legends take place in a world filled with great cities.
Actually, in spite of the fact that they are seemingly advanced, there are odd aspects to their civilization. They have not even reached the Bronze Age by modern times. Their use of metal before the 17th century is restricted to ornamental purposes, although they have a rather advanced mastery of ceramics. Their chemistry is rather in advance of Europe. Their art of carpentry was well in advance of any human culture from prehistoric times and in modern times is augmented by a remarkable array of adhesives.
- Beaver languages would be figured as primitive by human linguistic standards. "Words", if such they can be called, are usually a combination of spoken sounds, hand gestures and tail beats in the manner of their animal forebears. Humans find it difficult, if not impossible to reproduce. Their written languages are complex, being somewhat more involved than Chinese.
In fact, humans will tend to note that, as a race, the Beavers are attracted to complexity for its own sake. They are fond of detailed rituals and entertainment involving multiple steps and subroutines. Their literature, even in its very early forms, is built upon multiple interlocking subplots. Their music and poetry is utterly dependent on multiple rhythms. They love Machiavellian politics and Byzantine legal structures. They positively revel in bureaucracy. For humans, this would have a chilling effect on society, but for Beavers, it serves to give them a warm and secure sense of community.
- They depend on a strain of rice that is native to America, growing it in large complexes. Also 'grown' are clams, oysters and mollusks. Where man domesticated the dog to help herd sheep, the Beavers have domesticated otters to herd fish that they eat. Because of their need for lumber, they have taken up growing trees. Native fruits, such as plums, cherries, mulberries, walnuts, and others are grown to supplement their diet.