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Pern demographics

[These pages came back online in March 2012 after a long absence, if you are surprised to have missed them before]

If you haven't read Anne McCaffrey's Dragon books, what follows won't mean a lot. Go! Read! Enjoy!

These are pages under construction, which means I haven't scoured every page of the canon for data yet and there are bound to be some errors in my deductions. They are also exercises in nitpicking. You don't need to understand economics (or xenobiology or astrophysics) to enjoy the stories, which are like most good Science Fiction about people, not science. Pern is a well thought out world, and on a number of occasions I've thought 'why don't they' only to find that they have, or there is a good reason why they haven't!

If you came here from elsewhere, this page was part of City, the documentation for a medieval economics spreadsheet. I say 'was' because it sort of growed. Strange words like MARGIN and CLANDUSE below are variables from the spreadsheet. The other pages are:
Thread patterns
Can Menolly outrun Thread?
Dragon demographics
Bargaining for bubbly pies

There is a date chart in Moreta that covers the entire span of human history on Pern. It is headed incorrectly, the dates are from Planetfall not Planetfall +8, and it gets Long Intervals wrong: the Red Star has a 250 Turn orbit(6), so with a Long Interval it returns in 500 Turns, not 450. The date of Ninth Pass start is therefore 2508. Apart from that, it is used here.
The book Dragonlover's Guide to Pern (DLG) contains some information not found in the stories. Though authorised, it unfortunately contains some errors.
Another authorised book is The Atlas of Pern.
To avoid confusion I use 'Area', a non-canonical term, to indicate the land that falls within the jurisdiction of a Major Hold. Pernese use 'Hold' for both the settlement and the Area, in the same sense that 'New York' is both a city and a state.
The novel Red Star Rising was retitled Dragonseye for USA publication.

Map of Pern

Problem #1 - the maps

The various maps that appear in the books are not consistent as regards relative locations of places. The definitive map seems to be in Dolphins of Pern, this is also a World Map with lines of latitude and time zones. A copy of it showing just the inhabited parts of Pern is in Renegades of Pern, and that's the one I've been using.
The one you're looking at now is fairly accurate and covers the same area as the Renegades map. You will see that the northern continent has much less fertile land than the south, a fact of some importance.

Problem #2 - just how big is Pern?

Nowhere in the books is the size of Pern directly stated.
Only one map in the books has a scale - the Threadfall map in Dragonsdawn. It also has a map grid, latitude in degrees and longitude in time zones. Unfortunately a flat projection of a large part of a globe does not have a consistent scale... If we assume this is an equatorial scale then the circumference of Pern is 2,900 miles.
I don't think it is though. The grid lines on the map suggest that this is Gall's projection and the scale is true for latitude at 45°, so the circumference is 4,100 miles.
In Dragonsdawn Ch20, during an experiment to determine if time between is independent of distance(4) the distance from Fort to the Cove near Landing(5) is given: nearly three thousand kilometres. This makes the circumference about 4,500 miles.
From Rescue Run in Chronicles Honshu to Landing is nearly 1200 kilometres. This is not inconsistent with the Fort-Cove distance.
But wait! Dragonlover's Guide (p1) says...

"The second [continent], somewhat smaller and resembling a dragon in flight looking back over its shoulder, is approximately the size of Earth's Eurasian landmass. The last, very small, barren continent is isolated on the other side of the world in the middle of an ocean five thousand miles wide. The planet's diameter is approximately sixty-five hundred miles."

...that is the circumference is 20,400 miles. This figure is I suspect taking the EEC survey gravity measurement (G=0.9) and assuming Pern to have the same density as Earth. Slightly lower gravity, slightly smaller planet.
Other daft astronomical and planetary data in DLG suggests the author isn't, to be polite, aware of her ignorance on such matters.

There is also some indirect data. Dragonriders don't worry about 'how far' of course, they just go between, but in later stories that deal more with common folk there are instances where times spent on journeys using riding beasts are given. Let's go for 4,500 and see if it fits:
From the mouth of Keroon River to Benden Hold in Renegades is three days ride. By map that should be 120 miles. 40 miles a day?
In MasterHarper of Pern Tillek to Ruatha is seven days hard riding. 400+ miles, 60+ miles/day? Consistent with the above anyway, and with medieval Europe(8)
From Chronicles, Ruatha to Fort: 'On a good horse, you could ride the distance in two days'. 120 miles, 60 miles/day again. With ox-drawn wagons it takes three days, and that's really fast going. OK, they are genetically engineered oxen (author rationalisation?).

According to Robinton in MasterHarper, the spires of High Reaches Weyr are just visible from the top of the drum tower at High Reaches Hold on a clear day. 50 miles allowing for high latitude?
This is at least evidence that the author is using a scale, and has added qualifications to try to bridge a rather too wide gap (I'd guess at no more than 20 miles).

For another approach try Can Menolly outrun Thread?

Page from 'Atlas of Pern'

For The Atlas of Pern (1984) Karen Wynn Fonstad took four journeys to estimate scale: 9

The result is just about visible in the scale of the Atlas map to the right. The Atlas makes Pern smaller than my best guess, Fort to Ruatha for example is 80 miles, and the circumference of Pern is 2,900 miles since the Dragonsdawn map presumably takes its scale from the Atlas.


I'm going to disagree with the Atlas and DLG, and go for a 4,500 mile circumference. This makes habitable northern Pern no more than 450,000 sq miles. By comparison the British Isles are 270,000 sq miles, Madagascar is 587,000 sq miles.

Problem #3 - population growth

Pern was originally settled by 'nearly 6,000' colonists. By First Fall this had risen to 20,000.
An accurate census was taken just before Second Pass (Red Star Rising), from it Bitra is quoted as being one of the smaller Areas with 25,000 people. There were ten Major Holds then, so the population was >250,000, perhaps nearer 500,000. The population increase rate was (using 500,000) 1.7% since Landing. This is lower than the current Earth rate of 2.3%. The expected rate for new colonies (inferred in Rescue Run) is 8%.

DLG Hold data 9th Pass
Hold Supporting
Fort 825 10,000
Benden 550 9,000
Telgar 1,000 15,000

The only other Area population figure is from Sixth Pass when Fort has 'nearly ten thousand'(1) (Nerilka's Story).
DLG wrongly uses this figure as being 9th Pass, but treats it and other population figures interestingly as being the number of people directly involved with feeding the Hold - for spreadsheet purposes CITYFEEDERS. This is most convenient, and when compared to Hold populations (CITYPOP) it looks to be within medieval limits.

Human biological incompatibility with Pern is evidently not a problem - Pernese breed like the proverbial rabbits. By Ninth Pass HealerHall knows nothing about birth control(3). Violence has not been forgotten, but there seem to have been no prolonged armed conflicts.
This leaves only one of the Four Horsemen, Pestilence(2). There was a 'fever' in year 16 that killed about 4,000 people, and Dolphins mentions an epidemic around a century after Landing that was serious enough to cause organised human-dolphin cooperation to be abandoned.
Such outbreaks seem to have continued - Moreta is devoted to a particularly nasty 'Plague' (actually a 'flu-like virus) during Sixth Pass in 1505, during which half the population may have died.
While the pandemic of 1505 is remembered as the Great Plague, possibly because of the Ballad of Moreta's Ride, there could have been earlier forgotten outbreaks. A hint of this occurs in Nerilka, where the heroine finds that the Fort Hold medicinal records, left uncopied, are only legible back to Fifth Pass. The Healers' records are better, but are apparently more concerned with treatment than history.

On Earth the Black Death is the only disease to have had a significant effect on population growth in Europe, halting it for 200 years. It was the recurrence of plague that did this, a fact clearly understood by the Healers in Moreta. They were lucky in that there are no feral animals to act as carriers in northern Pern - native Pernese species are immune to Earth diseases and vice-versa.

Land Ownership

A peculiarity of Pern is the 'land right' system. This derived from the right of all the original colonists to a plot of land, a right which the Weyrbound deliberately give up (see Debera's impression in Red Star Rising).
Over time the original democracy was modified to a vaguely feudal structure with a 'Charter' intended to define and protect everyone's rights. This resulted in Northern Pern being divided into Hold Areas, each centred on a Major Hold, the Pernese equivalent of a City.
Again over time the right of everyone to land seems to have been amended to the right of the children of those holding land to land. By Ninth Pass a significant proportion of the population are by intent, descent or ill fortune landless. A smaller number are Holdless.
There is a reference in MasterHarper to apprentices being entitled to land rights upon qualification. The implication throughout is that land cannot be bought or sold.
A Major Hold is headed by a Lord Holder, who can pass his title on to any relative he chooses, though most likely this will be a son even by Ninth Pass there is no tradition of 'eldest inherits'. If no heir is named, a Conclave of Lord Holders can appoint someone.
It is clear from MasterHarper that the Hold Areas cover all of northern Pern, but that Lord Holders don't have practical jurisdiction over some outlying minor Holds. Fax, for example, is able to seize minor Holds in other Areas without the Lord Holder feeling able to take action.
'Land right' seems to include the obligation to make good use of the land, a requirement that can be abused by Lord Holders.
Land rights are fine until the land runs out. At the start of the Ninth Pass Holders are complaining about the lack of suitable vacant land on which to start new minor holds for their sons. This I take to be the first sign of overpopulation, just what the spreadsheet is looking for.

How big is a Weyr?

From Dragonflight: The five Weyrs that come forward had 1800/5 = 360 dragons each. In Moreta's time (Sixth Pass) numbers were much the same, so this is presumably the optimum number during a Pass.
Dragons can carry big loads between, being more limited by space than weight. If we assume that each dragon coming forward carried 4 people plus luggage (as DLG does) that gives us 1,400 humans per Weyr
But what about Dragons? They are consuming food as well. Going for an arbitrary x10, that gives a human equivalent of 5,000.
For more about dragons you need the dragon demographics page of course!

How big is a major Hold?

According to Rescue Run the pre-First Fall population had risen from 6,000 to 20,000. The survivors of the evacuation from Landing, about 1,000, were all at Fort. More refugees plus a high birth rate brought this figure to 5,000 according to DLG, creating serious overcrowding.
This was alleviated by more digging and the establishment of more Holds starting within seven years. Digging continued for another 230 years until the start of 2nd Pass (Red Star Rising), at which point Fort Hold began to add large outside buildings. By 9th Pass some 'back corridors' have been abandoned.

As hinted at in the books and expanded upon in DLG, Fort Hold seems to be run more communally than other Holds, perhaps deriving from the 1st Pass crisis days. There are central food stores in 6th Pass and the 1st Pass creche became a 6th Pass Nursery.

Then there are the Crafthalls. These are usually adjacent to Major Holds (SmithCraftHall is not) and are centralised training and research facilities, colleges in effect. For our purposes we must count them in with the Hold population.
How large are they? Quite small in some cases - 150 at Harperhall? Enough at least to bring Major Holds up to 1,000.

Also in Sixth Pass Igen Hold has 'nearly 1,000' (Moreta Ch9).

For Europe in the Middle Ages MARGIN sets the upper limit to urbanisation, around 10%. Normally maintaining technology sets the lower limit: not enough towns means not enough work for skilled craftsmen. On Pern the Crafts were established probably deliberately to offset this. So how far can we go down...1%?

How big is a minor Hold?

In England settlements that we now call 'villages' would have been accounted towns in medieval times. I suspect the same may be true for Pern. Half-Circle sea hold Ninth Pass seems to be village sized (DLG estimates 350), on the other hand the Hill Holds visited by Nerilka and Moreta in Sixth Pass go down to 'household' size.

Population distribution

I have the impression that a good part of 9th Pass northern Pern is sparsely inhabited, so this must be marginal/infertile land. The periodic removal of vegetation cover due to Thread would account for some of this: I would assume that away from inhabited areas some burrowing Thread does get through, otherwise there would be no need for groundcrews at all. There are also mountainous areas, the continent would seem to resemble Scotland rather than England, and without much forest cover (dark green on the map) there would be a lot of erosion and flooding. Tree planting has been deliberate rather than natural spread. I've set CLIM at 0.7 to account for some of the above.
The southern continent by contrast shows the beneficial effect of the Thread eating grubs. Over 25 centuries the lowlands have become extensively wooded.
Judging by the rate Pernese get through meat rolls(7), they eat more meat than did people in medieval Europe. And then there are those herdbeast devouring dragons! Herdbeasts may be easier to protect from Thread than grain, but it is not efficient land use. Anyway, this means the ARABLE:PASTURE ratio needs to be adjusted.
DLG has 15-20% arable land. I think this too high, but I've kept it on the spreadsheet.

At the time of the 1505 Plague there are several complaints from the Healers that the Lord Holders have been overcrowding their Major Holds, thereby facilitating the spread of disease. Why should they do so? I can only think that as this is during Threadfall they do not want to go to the expense of building Threadproof buildings.
During Threadfall there might well be a clustering of population around the major Holds with their cave systems and guaranteed Weyr/groundcrew protection, and perhaps around places where slate as thread-proof roofing is available, so I've set FARMLAND at 150%. Remember that as the Major Holds are near mountains FARMLAND cannot approach it's maximum (CLANDUSE = 100%).


Pern has lost a great deal of its original technology, but for food production I think some skills above the Earth medieval will have survived. There is also a certain amount of central planning and research. I've therefore applied a 0.3 MARGIN.
While in Dragonflight the Lord Holders are in revolt over tithes this has to be more politics than hardship as they subsequently prove able to feed six Weyrs without complaint.

Pern has a monetary system that resembles that of medieval Europe but uses wooden coins; for the problems this generates see Bargaining for bubbly pies.


6th Pass Pern: Nerilka says Western Pern was more densely populated than the East. Moreta (Ch1) thinks the Six Weyrs are 'hard-pressed' and Weyrleaders are concerned about the 'creeping expansion of the hold populations'. It thus seems likely that the 6th Pass population was below that of 9th Pass before the Plague but not by much. Certainly the countryside seems well populated.

For 9th Pass Pern Dragonlover's Guide gives 4-5 million. The spreadsheet cannot reconcile this with the DLG land use figure; it thinks land use for 4.5 million would be about 12% for ARABLE+PASTURE.
To achieve maximum population as required for 9th Pass, you can:
1) Increase the population to 12 million.
2) Decrease ARABLE+PASTURE to 12%.
3) Mess about with things you shouldn't touch like FARMFUDGE.
4) Shrink the planet!

URBAN at 1% gives the correct CITYPOP: 6 Weyrs @ 5,000, 15 Major Holds/Crafthalls @ 1,000. This is too low, and accounts for Pern's slowly declining technology.

The spreadsheet only allows for one size of sub-1,000 settlement, but it can be used to find data for two sizes:
Assume a cot has 7 inhabitants and a minor hold 400. If there are say six cots to every minor hold then there will be about 680 minor holds in each Major Hold Area. VILGAP for minor holds is then set for (7*6+400), and is 2.46 miles. VILGAP for cots is 0.3 miles. Cots use about 35 acres on average, higher than proposed by DLG due perhaps to the greater amount of pasture land.


If you don't like 'my' Pern you can always make your own!
You might think my minor hold:cot ratio is wrong, or the number of minor holds, in which case play around with VILGAP to get the combined VILSIZE you want.
If you think Famine should be giving Pestilence a hand now and then, reduce MARGIN.
If you believe Pern should be Earthlike in density, distances are *4 and so area is *16.

  1. "Fort Hold could treat every one of the ten thousand inhabitants if necessary". [Back]
  2. To anyone who says "What about Clancy?" I would point out that an obsession with ponies and collecting rosettes is neither fatal nor long-lasting, and besides you're in the wrong Secondary Universe. [Back]
  3. After Robinton's difficult birth, his parents are advised (MasterHarper Ch1) not to have more children. The only way the Healers know of ensuring this is the obvious one - don't have sex.
    Later in the same chapter Merelan employs what appears to be the 'rhythm method' - and then obtains a contraceptive potion from her aunt! A reliable contraceptive used by women would have profound effects on Pernese demographics, but there is no indication that it comes to the attention of HealerHall in the following 75 Turns. It seems reasonable to suppose that AIVAS would give the Healers at least the concept of artificial contraception.[Back]
  4. Fire lizards spend eight seconds between. For dragons however time between is apparently variable! [Back]
  5. On the map above Landing is just south of the brown circle (a volcano) in the SE corner. [Back]
  6. Actually it varies by ±10, but 9th Pass dating assumes a standard 250 turns. [Back]
  7. As Mirrim tactfully expresses it "No meatrolls! I'll puke if I have to eat any more." - All the Weyrs Ch16. [Back]
  8. M.W.LaBarge, A Baronial Household of the Thirteenth Century (London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1965) pp156-7 has travel distances: the household with carts normally did fifteen miles a day, thirty a day if hurrying. Merchants with horses made 35-40 miles a day, messengers up to sixty miles a day.[Back]
  9. References and arguement on page xvi of the Atlas.[Back]


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