The Wieroo may be one of Burroughs's strangest creations, at least
outside of Pellucidar (which presents such oddities as a gliding, aggressive
stegosaurus). They resemble winged humans (with bat- or pterodactyl-like
wings), emaciated to a corpselike state, to the point that the first outside-world
humans to see them mistake them for ghosts. Their flying abilities are
impressive for such large creatures, able to carry humans through the air
while flying for miles at great heights.
OK, so what the heck are these things? And are they possible?
The Size Issue
Wieroo are the same size as humans. This seems awfully large for a flying
creature – the heaviest flying creatures alive today, the Kori and Great
Bustards, are about 45 pounds (20 kilograms), and they're not very good
fliers. The heaviest long-distance flyers are the condors, in the neighborhood
of 22-24 pounds (10-11 kilograms).
However, in prehistoric times, flying creatures were much larger. The
very largest pterosaurs were much larger than humans - some estimates put
Hatzegopteryx at as much as 1000-1100 pounds (450-500 kilograms).
Argentavis, the largest known flying bird, would have been somewhere around
160 pounds (70 kilograms), in the human range. So it's not impossible.
(Also, Caspak's pterodactyls seem to be significantly larger than real-world
pterosaurs, "as large as a large whale".)
The Wing Problem
… how do they have wings?
Land vertebrates only have four limbs. There are no extra limbs for
the Wieroo to adapt into wings.
It's theoretically possible that through some strange mutation (probably
in a homeobox gene) the Wieroo could have gained an extra pair of limbs.
But the extreme unlikeliness of this (this has never happened in any group
of land vertebrates), combined with the complex evolution required to turn
the already specialized primate arm and hand into a fully functional wing,
makes this an exceptionally implausible explanation.
Well, maybe the Wieroo's wings aren't strictly limbs. They're described
as looking like pterosaur wings, which, of course, are derived from limbs:
but the men marooned in Caspak were hardly anatomists. Furthermore,
pterosaur wings are supported by a single finger – perhaps these wings
are supported by a rod-like structure rather than a full set of hand and
In Out of Time's Abyss, Co-Tan reveals that, according to Galu
belief, the Wieroo's wings started out as very simple structures, which
the Wieroo developed into functional wings by many generations of killing
any Wieroo with less-developed wings:
“There is a legend current among my people
that once the Wieroo were unlike us only in that they possessed rudimentary
wings. They lived in villages in the Galu country, and while the two peoples
often warred, they held no hatred for one another. In those days each race
came up from the beginning and there was great rivalry as to which was
the higher in the scale of evolution … They were very warlike and very
numerous, although they had long since adopted the policy of slaying all
those among them whose wings did not show advanced development.
"It took ages for all this to happen--very slowly
came the different changes; but at last the Wieroos had wings they could
- Out of Time's Abyss, Chapter
The Path to Flight
the Wieroo first developed wing-like flaps as a genetic mutation that was
not sufficiently detrimental to impair the ‘pseudo-winged’ hominids’ lives.
It may have been something similar to the feline cutaneous asthenia that
gives some cats large skin-flaps, leading to reports of “winged cats”.
In a small village or tribe, the ‘founder effect’ could spread
this disorder to most of the population within a few generations. After
this, it could be taken up socially as a group identification. Once this
has happened, the stage is set not only for possible killing of those proto-Wieroo
without the condition (as Co-Tan states happened), or with less extreme
forms, but also for treating it as an attractive trait. This could create
sexual selection for larger ‘pseudo-wings’ – and runaway sexual selection
can have pretty extreme effects (see the peacock's tail for an example).
With sexual selection, and the killing of those with smaller or no ‘pseudo-wings’,
there would be immense selective pressure to increase the size of these
So, a population of ‘proto-Wieroo’ now exist with skin-flap pseudo-wings
of large size. The gliding benefits provided even by very large non-rigid
pseudo-wings would be marginal at best for a human-sized creature, though
they might make shorter falls somewhat more survivable. Still, they would
of necessity be a net handicap, only balanced out by the sexual selection
in favor of them. To get functional flying wings, we need a drastic mutation.
So, some proto-Wieroo developed a mutation which produced extra bone
in his ‘wing’ of skin. This might have been some form of homeobox gene
mutation; these mutations can cause dramatic physical changes with only
a single gene. A bone support would make the ‘wing’ appear larger and less
‘droopy’, so it might well be sexually selected for. With this new mutation
– and a bony structure for the Wieroo wing – the stage is set toward actual
powered flight – but it is still a long way off. It seems nearly unbelievable
that this could occur in the time scale that human-like hominids have existed
on Earth, though. No wonder Co-Tan said it took ‘ages’!
A much wilder possibility is that the Wieroo were genetically engineered
to have wings by a very ancient high-technology Caspakian civilization,
old enough that no remnants of it remain visible. There is no evidence
for this, admittedly, but the Wieroo are quite a stretch to be produced
by natural evolution alone. And it might explain the weird reproductive
cycle of other Caspakians as another artificial trait. Still, due to the
total lack of evidence for any Caspakian civilization more advanced than
the Wieroo (who seem to be on an advanced iron age level) this must remain
a wild (but interesting) speculation…
Appearance of the Wieroo
Now, the Wieroo's wings will need very strong muscles to power their
flight. In addition, the Wieroo arms and hands are stronger than one might
expect from such a gaunt, corpselike creature – the one Bradley wrestles
with is “possessed of enormous strength”, and Bradley only escapes its
strangling grasp by clubbing it over the head with his gun. Since the Wieroo
will almost certainly be lighter than humans of the same height, this is
remarkable. The Wieroo's shoulder regions will be exceptionally heavily
muscled, with muscles for both the strong wings and powerful arms. On the
other hand, the Wieroo's legs will almost certainly be less muscular than
those of humans. They probably do not walk long distances, flying anytime
they are outside – every time they run, they instinctively use their wings
to help them, which causes problems in dense forest. Human legs are built
for long endurance; the Wieroo do not need this. Also, the Wieroo, to save
weight for flight, will probably have minimal fat.
This probably explains the corpselike appearance of the Wieroo, commented
on by Bradley and his party. Their legs and lower torso will have little
muscle and less fat, and the shapes of the bones will probably be visible
through the skin – causing them to look emaciated and near-skeletal. Even
the muscular upper torso and arms will still probably have little fat;
the hands will probably appear freakish to normal humans. (The Wieroo also
seem to have disturbingly long fingers, heightening the bizarre appearance.)
Their faces, with little fat, will probably have sunken cheeks and a more
visible bone structure.
how the heck did these guys get a civilization? They're on an island that's
maybe, generously, the size of Guam. They've got writing, paper, complex
architecture with multi-story buildings, metalworking… they're pretty advanced.
Now admittedly Ajor's got an iron knife, so the Galu seem to be getting
into the Iron Age. But no cities, no building past huts, no writing,
certainly no paper, anywhere else. Now for humans, writing only got invented
independently a few times (Sumer, Egypt, the Maya civilization, China),
and each time it was in a place that was quite populated for its era, the
cultural heart of its whole region, with trade and the flow of information
and ideas well outside its own boundaries. Egypt was relatively isolated
by desert, but they still had lots of trade – with the Middle East and
with Nubia (the land south of Egypt). Caspak’s got big cliffs thousands
of feet high surrounding it, and it's totally unknown to the modern world.
And Oo-oh is inaccessible to anyone from Caspak – Co-tan is convinced that
escape from the island is totally impossible!
The Wieroo population can't be that large, only a few thousand probably,
especially as their reproduction is entirely dependent on stealing Galu
cos-ata-lo women. (See my Caspakian Demography essay for why I say a few
thousand is the maximum.) So they simply do not have enough people to form
a civilization, most likely – with so few individuals, a great genius or
inventor will hardly ever appear.
There is the possibility, though, that the Wieroo are simply more intelligent
than human beings; Burroughs certainly suggests this at one point in Out
of Time's Abyss (chapter 2): “Had natural selection produced during
the countless ages of Caspakian life a winged monstrosity that represented
the earthly pinnacle of man's evolution?” This is an unusual comment, as
it appears in Bradley's speculations when he discovers the Wieroo have
writing and paper-making; he also thinks of them as “the high culture of
the human race within the boundaries of Caspak”, which is sensible, but
there seems to be no obvious reason for Bradley to think of them as the
earthly pinnacle (rather than merely Caspakian). Still, the possibility
is definitely raised, and we must consider it. Co-tan seems also to think
the Wieroo are of exceptional intelligence: her recited legend of Wieroo
origins says that:
“Slowly they commenced to develop
certain attributes of the mind which, they considered, placed them
upon a still higher level and which gave them many advantages over
us, seeing which they thought only of mental development” …
This does seem to suggest that they are somewhat superhuman in intelligence
(they had “many advantages” over the Galu, who are fully human, and had
devoted themselves for ages to developing their minds). However, elsewhere
in the book the Wieroo show no especial signs of super-intelligence, and
Bradley is certainly able to outsmart them at times, so this seems unlikely.
(There does remain the possibility that the Wieroo are simply poor at dealing
with normal humans – Co-tan says in the same legend that “their minds became
like stars and the rivers, moving always in the same manner, never varying”,
which would perhaps make them easier for a human to trick.)
“They make many wonderful things that we
cannot make. They think great thoughts, no doubt, and still dream
of greatness to come, but their thoughts and their acts are regulated by
ages of custom -- they are all alike -- and they are most unhappy”.
- Out of Time's Abyss, chapter
It could also be suggested that the Wieroo's strong traditions allow
them to retain knowledge from generation to generation more faithfully
than humans, and thus that they have simply built their civilization bit
by bit over a history of many thousands of years. There is no real
way to decide between these ideas, and the situation could be a combination