Transporting Information: Sending Messages in Low Tech Societies
The first roads were little more than game trails. Early infrastructure focused more on stopping travel than facilitating it. With civilization, though, came a need to transport information, and history presents us with thousands of years of inspiration for creating messenger systems in fiction.
Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.
This famous quote, most commonly associated with America’s Pony Express and the United States Post Office, predates the founding of the USA by over two thousand years. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus actually wrote about the Persian courier system back in approximately 430 BCE. Relay messenger services weren’t unique in the ancient world, though. The Egyptians, the Incas, the Romans, and the Chinese are just some of the Empires that boasted efficient postal mail. Furthermore, the transportation of information wasn’t solely handled by Imperial couriers. Homing pigeons, drums, and signal fires also played a critical role in sending key messages across different lands.
Couriers like those employed by the American Pony Express are a common feature in Wild West fiction. Pony Express riders delivered messages through often hostile territories that mostly lacked any real infrastructure. Despite how often they appear in Westerns, however, the Pony Express only operated for about a year—the establishment of the telegraph put them out of business, and they never proved to be financially viable.
The Achaemenid Empire, otherwise known as the First Persian Empire, was so enormous that a lot of people think its size caused communication difficulties between the throne and the provinces. It’s easy for even scholars to assume that big empires can’t maintain centralized control, which isn’t always true. In reality, even with the geographical disadvantage of a mountain range, ancient Empires could maintain strong infrastructure that allowed for official communication across vast distances.
The Achaemenid Empire used a postal relay system called the pirradazish that functioned similarly to the American Pony Express, although the Persians had the advantage of roads, rivers, canals, and homing pigeons. In Persia, only important roads or roads near cities were paved. Most probably had a gravel surface with curbstones and a ridge down the middle to divide the road into lanes.
Some ancient roads cut right through the sides of mountains, but even when a road is naturally paved—by virtue of being carved from stone—there’s more work to be done. Irrigation channels kept roads from washing out and eroding away; constructing these channels was an extremely labor-intensive process in a pre-industrial society, but that didn’t stop ancient empires from doing it. Creating a road isn’t enough, though. Roads need to be navigable, so the Persians under Darius I employed people called road counters to measure the roads—probably to create accurate maps and erect milestones. Maintenance was also vital, so workmen traveled with the road counters to make repairs.
In the Incan Empire, local populations maintained roads and bridges—typically made out of rope—as part of their tithes. The Andean Royal road was over 5,000 km (3,100 miles) long, longer than the longest Roman road. Andean civilizations dug stone steps into the mountainsides and built stone walls to keep sand from drifting into the lowland deserts. The messengers, called chasquis, had no horses and no wheeled vehicles; selected from young men with notable strength and fitness, chasquis traveled on foot with only the occasional llama to help carry goods. They lived in cabins along the roadside and kept watch for their fellows, running out to greet tired messengers before becoming the next link in the chain. The chasquis could carry messages over 400 km (250 miles) per day.
The Roman Empire built and maintained an extensive road network as well. A good Roman courier could carry a message about 80 km (50 miles) per day. It may seem odd that the Andean messengers covered so much more ground in a day; although horses can sprint faster than humans, humans are probably the world’s best long-distance runners. Societies that train people to carry messages at a run have significantly faster postal systems, but the runners have to do a lot more work.
For a great example of how important good roads are for the transportation of information across a fantasy world, check out L. E. Modesitt’s Spellsong Cycle. The protagonist, Anna, spends a significant chunk of the second book building a network of roads to facilitate troop movements, and the postal mail system she implements is a direct driver of the plot.
A good horse, ridden hard but not to the point of collapse, can travel about 20 km (12 miles) in an hour, approximately three times as fast as a person walking. Post stations were typically spaced according to this 20 km distance. There’s good evidence that ancient couriers operated similarly to the Pony Express model of changing horses at every station and then changing riders daily.
In Mongolia, the Khans created supply and message routes called “yams” that leveraged settlements and relay stations to transfer messages quickly and effectively. Mongolian message riders covered up to 300 km (185 miles) in a day at their peak. Stations offered supplies and shelter, although many official messengers also just stopped at villages to rest and change horses. The Khans conquered much of Central Asia and implemented formal postal systems, which became instrumental in combating insurrection.
Of course, the Khans were not the first to set up mail systems in China. As early as 1600 BCE, the Shang and Zhou dynasties used land and water routes to send mail. The Qin dynasty implemented the use of horses, along with vehicles like palanquins and litters, to speed up bulk mail delivery. They also allowed government officials to use the posthouses in lieu of privately-owned inns when they traveled.
In contrast to horses and humans, ancient homing pigeons could cover about 160 km (100 miles) in a day, and they didn’t require nearly as much fodder as a horse. Of course, they can’t carry as much either, and they don’t provide the personal touch of a human messenger who often did double duty as spies. Still, pigeons have been domesticated since at least 3000 BCE, and they were definitely used to carry messages since at least 2500 BCE. By the 12th century, the Persians had developed a complex messaging system with pigeons carrying messages between cities. Pigeons were bred and housed in dedicated facilities called dovecotes. In Egypt and the Levant, they were often built from mud brick and had thatched roofs, but individuals could keep pigeons in something as simple as a clay pot. Pigeons proved useful for more than just sending messages; as with many other domesticated animals, their excrement makes good fertilizer , and their meat and eggs make for good eating.
The imperial messenger birds in Miles Cameron’s Traitor Son Cycle are well-integrated into the series and several key plot points rely on swift communications between distant leaders trying to stay coordinated against the enemy.
Dogs are often underutilized as messengers in fiction, but dogs, too, carry messages. Rottweilers served as scouts and messengers during WWII, and since the Romans used dogs to carry provisions when their horses foundered and died, they certainly could have trained dogs to carry messages if they lacked other options.
Messages don’t need to be written down on paper to be relayed. Multiple pre-industrial societies around the globe have used drums to communicate over long distances. Some people in Papua New Guinea still use wooden slit drums, known as garamuts, to send messages. Slit drums were used in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Oceania throughout history.
In Africa, slit drums work particularly well for sending messages, as many African languages are more tonal than phonetic. “Talking drums” are therefore able to mimic spoken words, sending audio messages via sound waves, audible to anyone within range. Because some words may become distorted or muffled, messages sent via drum often become drawn out and repetitive, using ten words where one would normally do, to ensure that the message gets conveyed.
Although fictional drum messages are often sent from high places, in real life drum messages typically come from within a village. The natural acoustic properties of rivers and valleys where towns and villages are typically situated allow them to remain audible over 10 km (6 miles) away. Incidentally, this is the approximate distance between towns in most agricultural settings.
The quintessential example of drum communication in second-world fantasy is Pern. Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall trilogy does a beautiful job of bringing to life the role of communication drummers in an agricultural society. Piemur, the protagonist of Dragondrums, learns the secret codes used to send messages across great distances via drums and relay stations called drumheights.
Beacons are objects visible from long distance that serve as signals. They’re typically situated somewhere high and noticeable to convey warnings or serve as guides. Lighthouses flash their lights in a specific rhythm to provide location information to sailors. The medieval Dutch signaled information using the orientation of local windmill blades. The Greek historian Polybius invented an encrypted communication system that mapped torches to letters around 150 BCE. Complex messages are possible using dot-and-dash systems like Morse code.
The most well-known fantasy example of signal beacons probably comes from Lord of the Rings when Gondor’s signal beacons were lit to signal the siege of Minas Tirith and summon aid from Rohan.
Smoke signals have served as long-distance visual communication in ancient civilizations on at least four continents. In Oceania, the indigenous people of Australia built signal fires on hills and used fire and smoke to signal good fishing spots, travel advisories, news about births or deaths, and more. In Asia, Chinese soldiers manning the Great Wall could send word of impending attack hundreds of kilometers in mere hours. Beacon towers relayed “all clear” signals each morning and other important military information as needed. Beacon platforms were designed so that bonfire smoke or torch flames could be seen clearly at the next watchtower. They often contained chimneys or flues to encourage the smoke to rise straight up. Despite what you’ll read on the internet, though, the soldiers probably didn’t burn wolf dung, but sulfur and saltpeter were used after the Ming dynasty to help make the smoke more clearly visible across distances.
The native people of both North and South America communicated simple messages across distances using smoke signals. Since smoke signals are difficult to keep hidden, each tribe had its own set of signals, and messages only conveyed information on a few topics by creating Morse code-like patterns. For example, “enemies here!” or “all’s well” or “we found game.” However, tribes could prearrange other signals. On the open plains, puffs of smoke could be seen for upwards of 80 km (50 miles).
Authors aren’t limited to using only one of these methods to ensure their created cultures can communicate. Most low-tech civilizations utilized more than one method of transporting information over distances. The Inca and the Chinese both used signal fires to augment Imperial roads and postal systems. The Egyptians and the Romans certainly would have paired their regular couriers with messenger birds.
When considering how preindustrial civilizations communicate over distances, remember too that created worlds don’t necessarily face the same limitations as ancients peoples. Just because something didn’t happen on Earth doesn’t mean the conditions aren’t ripe for it in a fantasy land. Dogs make perfectly effective messengers even though we don’t have any evidence that some of Earth’s oldest civilizations used them that way. Encryption cyphers on drums are perfectly viable ways of communicating even if drum-talking societies rarely bothered to encode messages. And once you add magic into the mix, the possibilities are endless.