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The human country lies on a mountain plateau. On one side, the plateau stops at the top of a cliff, after which there are a collection of stacks and a group of tabletop mountains, none of them accessible with human technology.

Harpies live on the cliffs, the stacks, the mountains, and beyond. They don’t use either clothes nor tools nor fire, but are quite dexterous with their bird feet, and could probably do gardening work if they put their mind to it. They cannot lift an human; four of them could band together and carry a child, but humans won’t allow it, and the harpies (usually) oblige.

My question is : What goods/resources can be produced by harpies to be traded with humans?

It shouldn’t come from the harpy itself, so capturing one can’t get you anything. It has to be light, for harpies to carry it (so most metals are out of question). For one of the resources, I was thinking of a crocus-based dye. Some dyes were pretty valuable.

Sorry, I need to clarify a point. I'm not talking just about day-to-day local trade, but sought-after goods obtained through hard-won agreements (They don't look the part, but harpies can be shrewd, when they put their mind into it) with a noticeable impact on the economy. I like the answers so far, some of them will definitely make it in the story (provided I manage to finish it one day)

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    $\begingroup$ Are we talking about harpies the mythological part-human, part-bird creates, or real world harpies? $\endgroup$ – Renan Mar 5 '18 at 18:28
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    $\begingroup$ Trade -- by definition -- is two way. Thus... what do harpies want that humans have? $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Mar 5 '18 at 21:10
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    $\begingroup$ "Fish, mostly." Where do humans living on a mountain plateau get fish that harpies can't get just as easily? $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Mar 5 '18 at 23:36
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    $\begingroup$ OK. That would seem to make fish very expensive, though, so whatever the humans get from the harpies in trade should be commensurately expensive. (BTW, what do the plateau dwellers pay for the fish with?) $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Mar 6 '18 at 2:21
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    $\begingroup$ Side note - it’s pretty unlikely that it takes as much as 4 Harpies - i.e 4 winged humanoids - to lift a single human child into the air. A Harpy carrying it’s own weight while flying effortlessly can handle another 30% workload, just like an eagle would do with its prey, or a human carrying a child while walking. Moreover - Eagles have been known to prey upon animals 5 times their size, and even carry them (!) in the air for short distances and downhill. You might take all of this into consideration when building the relationship between these 2 societies in your story. $\endgroup$ – Fingolfin Mar 6 '18 at 9:26

16 Answers 16

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Collected treasures.

https://www.mnn.com/family/family-activities/blogs/little-girl-feeds-crows-in-return-they-bring-her-gifts crow gifts

Then, in 2013, Gabi decided to do more than just share the scraps of her lunch. Each morning, she began filling a birdbath with fresh water, and setting out food — peanuts, dog food and general leftovers — for the birds to eat. It was then that the gifts from the crows started to appear.

Gifts brought to Gabi Mann, little girl who feeds crows Gabi's 'treasures' include a blue paper clip, a Lego piece, a rusty screw and a pearl-colored heart. (Photo: The Bittersweet Life/Twitter)

Her collection also includes a miniature silver ball, a black button, a faded black piece of foam and a blue Lego piece. She stores the treasures that the crows bring to her in a bead container, with each gift carefully itemized and labeled.

The wild lands where the harpies live are inaccessible to humans. But these lands were not always abandoned. Other races and civilizations once lived there, and their relics and artifacts sometimes make their way to the surface, where they are collected by the harpies. Crystals and dragon teeth lie on the surface waiting to be picked up. Ancient magic and strange earth energies produce unusual things which could be spotted by sharp eyes in the skies.

The harpies are collectors like the crows, but they are smarter and they know better what will fetch a price.

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    $\begingroup$ I like this idea. Have the harpies land at a farm or town and shout "Meat" or something, while dropping a shiny stone. If they only give it a chicken or a tiny bit of meat and it thinks it deserves more for the stone it picks up the stone and shouts again until it has what it thinks is fair. There would probably be mistakes made with just pretty non-valuable stones, but enough practice would work things out. I could imagine young ones dropping interesting sticks or cloth, that they really like and having to be told that they need stones instead. $\endgroup$ – Dan Clarke Mar 5 '18 at 16:34
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    $\begingroup$ I like the idea too, and the harpies actually live on former human territory. $\endgroup$ – castor Mar 5 '18 at 23:41
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Information

Harpies can fly and this would make them invaluable to help map-makers, to plot roads, to inspect large fields, and any other number of activities.

They also could carry messages between the cities, creating a courier network that could surpass most kinds of treacherous terrain with ease.

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  • $\begingroup$ Weather formations gleaned from high-altitude forays $\endgroup$ – user151841 Mar 5 '18 at 17:26
  • $\begingroup$ This would work well, Give the harpies their own little niche in society $\endgroup$ – ArcWraith Mar 5 '18 at 22:40
  • $\begingroup$ That's a nice idea for when humans start to explore the bottom of the cliffs. Harpies seldom venture outside of their cliffs, though. $\endgroup$ – castor Mar 6 '18 at 13:35
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It is in this kingdom that diamonds are got; and I will tell you how. There are certain lofty mountains in those parts; and when the winter rains fall, which are very heavy, the waters come roaring down the mountains in great torrents. When the rains are over, and the waters from the mountains have ceased to flow, they search the beds of the torrents and find plenty of diamonds. In summer also there are plenty to be found in the mountains, but the heat of the sun is so great that it is scarcely possible to go thither, nor is there then a drop of water to be found. Moreover in those mountains great serpents are rife to a marvellous degree, besides other vermin, and this owing to the great heat. The serpents are also the most venomous in existence, insomuch that any one going to that region runs fearful peril; for many have been destroyed by these evil reptiles.

Now among these mountains there are certain great and deep valleys, to the bottom of which there is no access. Wherefore the men who go in search of the diamonds take with them pieces of flesh, as lean as they can get, and these they cast into the bottom of a valley. Now there are numbers of white eagles that haunt those mountains and feed upon the serpents. When the eagles see the meat thrown down they pounce upon it and carry it up to some rocky hill-top where they begin to rend it. But there are men on the watch, and as soon as they see that the eagles have settled they raise a loud shouting to drive them away. And when the eagles are thus frightened away the men recover the pieces of meat, and find them full of diamonds which have stuck to the meat down in the bottom.

The Travels of Marco Polo

So Marco Polo told exaggerated tales, but it shows like flying small creatures could go down mountains to the river beds to retrieve jewels or valuable metals like gold extracted by rivers and normal erosion.

Even if your harpies can't carry heavy loads, only a couples of ounces of gold would make a flight very profitable. They could even get sieves from the humans to get those jewels better.

It is even fun if they insist on bringing shiny but not very interesting rocks, like quartz, instead of dull uncut jewels like emeralds.

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    $\begingroup$ That's a nice story, thanks. Harpies are afraid of the bottom (scary big cats there), but they could have watchers. $\endgroup$ – castor Mar 6 '18 at 17:50
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The harpies may be able to fly to other lands during migrations. As such they may be able to gather and bring to their human partners natural resources that would be too costly to acquire otherwise.

For example, tropical fruits. The humans would like those because a more varied diet would make them healthier, and the harpies might trade for anything they find useful in nest building.

Harpies would be ideal for this kind of import. In the very least they should be able to carry coconuts, making them far better couriers than swallows (europeans ones will not carry much weight, and african ones are not migratory).

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    $\begingroup$ If they migrate to some other humans it opens up a lot of options. $\endgroup$ – user25818 Mar 5 '18 at 18:25
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    $\begingroup$ AFRICAN SWALLOWS my god the references haha $\endgroup$ – Matthew Ng Mar 6 '18 at 6:27
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    $\begingroup$ I'm afraid it would only be possible with a banana-shaped earth. $\endgroup$ – castor Mar 6 '18 at 17:53
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Harpies

Harpies could make excellent scouts, shepherds, game wardens and exotic 'pets' for a ruler to show off. So there could be a - horrible! - trade in Harpie slaves. Slavers would likely either sell whole families, some members will have their wings cut and be kept as hostages so the others don't fly away. Or the Harpies sell eggs, with the human masters conditioning the young Harpies to obedience.

Either way, the result would be whole generations of Harpies growing up traumatized and brutalized so that a few Harpy leaders can have human made trinkets.

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  • $\begingroup$ The problem with this is keeping a disloyal creature to not just leave when you use it for flying. If treated so badly and you need it for its ability to fly, it will just fly off unless you give it a good reason $\endgroup$ – ArcWraith Mar 5 '18 at 22:42
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    $\begingroup$ Harpies themselves are excluded in the question. Humans are actually afraid if some harpies were to be captured, others may retaliate by taking childs away. Also, harpies don't have a family structure like humans have. $\endgroup$ – castor Mar 5 '18 at 23:59
  • $\begingroup$ @castor Oh, missed that part. I'll leave the answer here, Maybe it'll help others ... $\endgroup$ – mart Mar 6 '18 at 6:21
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Nuts

The harpies really like a certain kind of nut that only grows in the mountains but since nuts with weaker shells get eaten and don't become trees the nuts have evolved to have especially strong shells. One day while trying to crack nuts a harpy dropped it near some humans who promptly cracked it with their tools, seeing how expedient this was the harpy dropped more nuts by them until the humans started leaving cracked nuts as payment. Thus began a mutually beneficial arrangement, harpies would collect bags of nuts then drop them off at human settlements, the humans would crack the nuts and leave roughly half out for the harpies as payment, if the humans at one settlement are too stingy the harpies stop dropping their nuts there and take them to another settlement.

For the humans the nuts are a tasty treat, especially when roasted or coated in chocolate and the hard nut shells are used to make various things like arrow heads and scale-mail armour, or used as fuel in ovens and kilns.

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Medicinal plants that only grow in mountains or on cliffs

These resources might be very valuable for humans and are very easily obtainable for harpies. Many plants can grow on cliffs or in altitude exclusively. Depending on the technological advancement of humans, these plants might be vital (well, quite literally).

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OP indicated that my comment helped him, so I figured it was worth turning it into an answer:

Chalk from the cliffs and surrounding mountains.

  • Chalk is quite soft, so the harpies could probably dig it out of the cliffside using their talons, without the need for tools. It's also fairly light, so they should be able to transport it.
  • It could be difficult for the humans to mine it themselves - if they can't climb tabletop mountains, they probably can't traverse the cliff. Trading with the harpies may well be their only way of obtaining it.
  • Chalk is useful for things like writing and (depending on the nature of your society) make-up. It's also consumable, so the humans would need a constant, steady supply of it. (Since OP mentioned they're a country, I'm guessing there's a lot of humans.)
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  • $\begingroup$ During the medieval period one of the best ways a peasant could make money is climbing similar cliffs to steal eggs, harpies could do this with no problem. $\endgroup$ – John Mar 7 '18 at 16:51
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You can trade in goods or services.

Harpies are good at delivering only one kind of heavy object: themselves.

So services it is.

The most valuable being courier/postal services and mapmaking/reconnaisance services. An entire courier operation, with postal stations, built for scale.

Another thing is banking and trading. Anything that is about making connections, talking to many different people in different places. By flying higher than arrow range, harpies can move out and make deals, and carry contracts, money, and other valuables back and forth at much lower risk than humans.

Highly mobile countryside doctors will also be preferred to their slow human counterparts.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure if I would trust a literal birdbrain with wings instead of arms as my doctor $\endgroup$ – ArcWraith Mar 5 '18 at 22:53
  • $\begingroup$ @ArcWraith The question is tagged [medieval]. No need for hands or a lot of smarts to describe pills and leeches. $\endgroup$ – Peter Mar 6 '18 at 13:23
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Furs & hides.

Harpies would be really good hunters. If you can fly and shoot a bow, you can kill a lot of critters.

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    $\begingroup$ These harpies don't use tools, thus no bows. $\endgroup$ – Martin Bonner Mar 5 '18 at 14:30
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    $\begingroup$ Bows sound a bit far fetched for harpies to use. You're talking a creature that to stay still in the air actually means an up and down movement with the wing flaps. Having to aim with its feet/legs(assuming that these ones don't have arms just wings like standard harpy presentations) which woudn't be very long(shorter legs means jump higher and therefore better sudden starts) and then actually having to aim with all this while the air buffets you. Good luck. $\endgroup$ – ArcWraith Mar 5 '18 at 22:46
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    $\begingroup$ More reasonable would be for them to just carry and drop rocks/bombs. $\endgroup$ – ArcWraith Mar 5 '18 at 22:47
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Ivory or tortoiseshell

Assuming that the humans find it difficult to get down the cliff, you could easily populate them with large (peaceful or aggressive) animals with valuable, non-perishable body parts, such as teeth, tusks, horns or shells. Related options would include bones for medical (TCM-style) use, skulls as trophies, etc. The materials come in sizes that can be carried by a single harpy and have trophy, decorative or medicinal value. The animals could go to a remote and difficult-to-access 'elephant's graveyard' to die, or could simply be rare (but the picked-clean skeletons show up from the air).

Taking things one step further, the harpies could already be hunting by chasing herds of these large animals off cliffs and then scavenging the meat like vultures, resulting in a heap of 'useless' bones and tusks which they are later delighted to learn the humans will trade for.

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  • $\begingroup$ If you can't get down the cliff, how do you get sheep and cattle down the cliff? $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Mar 7 '18 at 9:28
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    $\begingroup$ @RonJohn I have no idea what you think I've written, but it doesn't involve getting sheep and cattle down a cliff. It involves the harpies recovering portable quantities of non-perishable materials from the remains of animals that naturally occur beyond the region the humans live in (and which either die naturally or are hunted without tools, using stone-age techniques), which humans would rarely even see from a distance and will certainly never encounter and consequently might prize highly. $\endgroup$ – arboviral Mar 7 '18 at 11:17
  • $\begingroup$ Your answer quite clearly stated "you could easily populate them with large (peaceful or aggressive) animals". That is not the same as "animals that naturally occur". $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Mar 7 '18 at 13:07
  • $\begingroup$ @RonJohn I believe the "you" mentioned by arboviral was the "godly you" of the world creator. To rephrase, you could create your world to include large animals with valuable, non-perishable body parts, such as teeth, tusks, horns, or shells. $\endgroup$ – Michael Richardson Mar 7 '18 at 15:50
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    $\begingroup$ I asked google and it told me that in the middle ages, a single walrus tusk was worth more than 100 kg of fish. $\endgroup$ – castor Mar 14 '18 at 17:40
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Delicious eggs.

Lots of birds nest on cliffs that are inaccessible to ground-based predators. A harpy could carry a couple per trip, more if you equipped her with a pouch.

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flying even without great lift capabilities open up hundreds of jobs.

  1. moving things to and from high places will open up many jobs, and result on far fewer humans dying from falling off of high ladders or poorly constructed scaffolding. note most of these jobs do not require moving heavy thing just getting to the locations. steeplejacks, church cleaners, thatchers, roofing work, eggers, and a hundred other jobs are more about working high not weight lifting.

  2. Fishing, medieval fishermen used to pay people to stand on the highest places the could find to spot fish schools for them, (water is to reflective at low angles to see through well) harpies could do this easier and without having to find something tall to climb on. I could easily see every fishing community having its own family of harpies fish spotting for them. Then you remember they might not be able to pull nets up but they could drop them, that would be useful in and of itself.

  3. As Mart mentions as scouts, shepards, mapmakers, game wardens are all great jobs, any job that requires covering long distances of wilderness terrain would be perfect jobs for them. there were a lot of jobs like this.

  4. guards, storm watchers. I imagine every town would have a few families of harpies with no other job but to glide high over the city and spot oncoming armies and/or storms. way cheaper than building and manning watch towers. Likewise every large ship would hire one or two for the same thing, not to mention flying messages from ship to ship or ship to shore. I can see dozens of jobs in the maritime industry.

  5. That brings up messengers, which others have mentioned, but people underestimate how useful they could be even inside a city as a messenger, they can fly over buildings and traffic and even find people who are out and about with ease. over long distance a horse might be better, but for simple messages within a town or province they would be vastly faster and more reliable, also far more secure since it is a lot harder to jump them in an alley.

  6. Archers, if harpies can draw and fire a bow with their feet they should be the most devastating archers in history, they would make horse archers look obsolete. If being the key term.

  7. Fruit pickers and nutters, working together with humans, harpies would make excellent fruit pickers, especially for getting the hardest to reach items on the high and outer branches.

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Skins and furs are the obvious item. Harpies eat the meat but since they don't wear clothes, skins are useless to them.

They are light enough to carry, a waste product and valuable to humans.

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The requirement for it being light makes a lot of things viable.

Basically any cutting tool which they develop would be very valuable since those would be very light, thus easy to wield and easy to carry (concealed).

herbs from the Mountains. Exotic is good. period. even if the herb is slightly poisonous you can market it as a cure. ("strong medicines have side-effects" kind of placebo effect, called necebo. Really funny).

small gems, crystals from the mountains. Shiny things you will capture human attention, especially if you can't get to them. Just walk past a jewelry shop and the effect becomes apparent.

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    $\begingroup$ Well, they could use tools, but they prefer to use their claws. $\endgroup$ – castor Mar 6 '18 at 0:19
  • $\begingroup$ "they could use tools, but they prefer to use their claws." Why? Tool use makes creatures more efficient at the task. For example, chimps and crows digging out termites with a stick, or neolithic man cutting meat with knapped flint. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Mar 6 '18 at 3:00
  • $\begingroup$ @castor you should edit that into your question. As it stands, whether it's your intention or not, you strongly imply that it is not possible for them to use tools. $\endgroup$ – user41674 Mar 6 '18 at 15:41
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You said it yourself: and could probably do gardening work if they put their mind to it

So anything that grows in their environment which does not grow on your plateau - especially if their living area is higher/lower than yours different plants will develop there.

Surely they will put their mind to it if your price is good.
Focus on leafy plants or their seeds (maybe with medicinal properties), not on roots, bulbs etc. because they can't carry heavy weights.

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