I know the simple answer is “because the writers at TSR thought it was cool and/or they couldn’t/didn’t bother coming up with something original.”
That being said, what I really want to do is find a way to make stuff fit together/work/reconcile.
We have the cultures on Athas, some of them are VERY obviously lifted whole cloth from Earth (Draj and Urik, for instance, being Mesoamerican/Aztec and Mesopotamian), others are a bit fuzzier (people STILL argue whether Nibenay is SE Asian or Indian, and I don’t get it but some people think Raam is Egyptian instead of Indian).
So you have these cultures, and a number of them are artificial in the sense that they have been deliberately stagnated / dictated by their respective sorcerer-monarchs.
Plus, in the TSR “multiverse” we know that Athas exists in the same way Earth does (in the form of the Gothic Earth / Red Death setting).
So. A number of questions. First of all, which one came first, Earth or Athas? Did these cultures originate on one or the other? This sentence is where I acknowledge the idea of parallel development and promptly throw it out because I think it’s a stupid cop-out.
Another point: Athas is INCREDIBLY difficult to reach/escape with regards to planar / interstellar travel. The ONLY instances we have are some planar excursions/incursions, and they’re super rare. There are literally NO interstellar travels and the Crystal Sphere is explicitly said to be sealed.
Those are the questions and background. Here are my answers (emphasis on the “my” in that I’m basically giving a theory/headcanon that generally works for me).
Athas is the end of everything. As in, the last blip before the end of existence at the end of time. Why don’t the SMs just jump ship to another planet/realm/plane? There’s literally nowhere else to go. Planar travel is so hard because it’s not just planar, it’s also temporal. Rather than just a “collapsed/corrupted” ethereal plane, the Grey is literally the entropic cascade of all outer planes at the end of time, and acts as a heat sink of energy for all attempts to reach backwards in time/place. The inner planes are twisted, crumbling places with a predominance of the para- and quasi-elements because the heat death of everything is close.
Side note: the githyanki nightmare gate and dregoth’s planar mirror. Trinth’s githyanki faction is said to be in a closed-off section of the astral plane (courtesy of Trinth’s demon-on-a-stick artifact). Not only did it close off her section of astral space, it also resulted in severe time dilation: Trinth’s faction exists coterminous with Athas at the end of time, but because of the time dilation effects of her artifact’s barrier, she doesn’t realize it. If she were to drop the barrier they would quickly discover this as the entropy of the Grey would rush in to fill the void. Dregoth’s mirror allows travel to other planes in a super easy way because it exists singularly across time: it allows access to all places in all times in which it continues to exist, bypassing the entropic heat sink of the Grey entirely. Dregoth doesn’t realize this because he never thought to ask and the mirror never felt the need to explain itself as Dregoth guessed enough of its function to ask confirming questions without actually reading the entire manual, as it were: “Hey mirror, so you allow planar travel?” “Yup.” “Cool.”
So. Athas is the end. All the Earth-inspired cultures on Athas? They were deliberately modeled.
(There’s a topic here I have bookmarked because I REALLY like a lot of the ideas it has: Alternity Dark Sun Timeline )
Supposedly the Rhulisti “made” all the races in the rebirth. Ok. But who’s to say they were “original” creations?
Anybody know the 90s video game “Xenogears?” Short version of some of its backstory: in the far future, a massive colony ship is commandeered to transport a planetary invasion system after it had a glitch and kind of accidentally destroyed a planet. Along the way, the system self-activates and attempts to take control of the vessel. The captain activates the self-destruct, and the ship crashes on a nearby planet, the only survivor being a small boy who had made contact with an entity trapped in the power source of the glitching system (God, basically) just prior to the event. The system, however, was prepared for this and initiated a protocol to eventually “resurrect” itself. Part of that system involved the mass production of “spare parts” in the form of human copies. A woman clone was created by this protocol in the wreckage of the ship, and she went on to parthenogenetically birth a number of other “humans” who, with the lone survivor, wound up fruitfully multiplying and covering the planet in human civilization. Basically, it’s a planet of “humans” who are really descended from human replicants. They’re “human,” but not really. There are some differences (at one point in the planet’s history, defective genes in their makeup resulted in a genetic limit where people were dying of old age in their 30s or 40s or 50s, in a society of progress and affluence comparable to the 21st century).
So yeah, the Rhulisti “made” the other races. But the titular “Rebirth” was because the Rhulisti were literally recreating races based on stored data/DNA. They weren’t “original” creations. And they weren’t “perfect” copies, resulting in a very mutable genetic structure (seriously, like all the rebirth races can interbreed; you don’t get nearly as much “cross-pollination” in other campaign settings. Elflings, Gelflings, Dwelfs, etc, amirite?). So where did they get this info? They must have had or found access to some kind of ark.
And in addition to the genetic samples, let’s say that there were cultural samples, library remains, something like that. In addition to rebirthing a number of races, the Rhulisti also rebirthed a number of cultures to bootstrap the “new” races into something other than culture-less barbarians.
I don’t know, this probably doesn’t make a lot of sense, I know I’m super tired and it’s been a huge mishmash in my head for a while. The bottom line is that places like Draj or Gulg or Raam or Balic aren’t expys of places like Mesoamerica or West Africa or India or Greece because of lazy writing or whatever (even though that’s pretty much exactly what they are in reality), but because they’re deliberate attempts at recreation.