The Natural History of Elves, Dwarfs, Men, Goblins, Gnomes and Trolls

The Paleoanthropological Relationships That Exist in the Hominini Lines of Middle-earth like Fairylands

The current resurgence of interest in the more recent history of worlds like Middle-earth, (often classified as Fairylands) in books such as ‘Detective Strongoak and the Case of the Dead Elf’, has come at a time when academic research into the field has also never been more fertile. Perhaps the productive area of investigation has been in the understanding of the Paleoanthropological relationships that exist in the Hominini lines of ‘Fairyland’ and how they relate to what is known about our own (Homo sapiens) developmental history. This article will give a necessarily brief review of thinking in the field and highlight some of the more interesting ramifications especially as they relate to Widergard.

No Fairies in Fairyland
The name of Fairyland is of course a misnomer and harks back to a period when our limited level of understanding of the Realm lead to several suspect classifications of the Hominini species present, including the rather nebulous class referred to as ‘fairies’ – a rag-bag group which could include elves, ‘pixies’ and even gnomes. It is interesting that although current revisions have excluded this division, the name ‘Fairyland’ still remains a useful reminder that there does exist a large body of study of the realm that predates the admittedly revelational works of modern authors. Whether it’s called Fairyland, or indeed other names, places such as Widergard continue to fascinate.

The family tree of the Hominini of Fairyland is given in Figure 1. Although some parts of the relationships are perhaps more controversial and speculative than others, particularly in the dating of the divergence of the dwarf/elf branch from that of gnomes, goblins and men, in general it provides a useful framework for further discussion.


Ogres Trolls and Giants
The early divergence of this branch from the rest of hominini line is now not disputed. They are anatomically distinguished not just by physical size (approaching a staggering 10 foot in the case of the stone trolls found in many mountainous areas), but by the ratio of limb length to torso. Not only is this greater than that found in other lines such as man, but the homologies clearly link the ogre and giant branches. The two branches also show common adaptations for a cold climate: increased size/bulk, thick layers of insulating fat (see left) and, in the case of some species of giants and ogres (although not trolls), a thick mat of hair. It is interesting how closely the adaptations of these hominids mirror those of other mammals, such as the giant mammoths and woolly rhinos that evolved during an ice-age climate – ogres also have a greatly enlarged nasal cavity to warm the sub-zero air before it is taken into the lungs – a feature found in several ice-age mammals.

fairy2There seems little doubt that trolls were originally albino ogres with a bad case of whole body alopecia. Amazingly it seems that albinism in trolls has conferred a selective advantage leading to speciation from the parent stock. The absence of troll skin pigmentation has been seen as an adaptation for increasing the UV absorption of sunlight necessary for vitamin D production in the restricted daylight of northern climes. There is no doubt that this occurs, but there is also no doubt that the remarkable paleness of the species provides trolls with exceptional camouflage for a winter landscape. A secondary territorial expansion, to southern woodlands, then lead many trolls to develop a green skin pigmentation (this could possibly be a personal hygiene problem – see left).

The Trolls loss of visual acuity is also not so important for a species that become largely nocturnal (this of course lead to the myth of trolls turning to stone in daylight!) and in fact closer examination shows that the troll eye has in fact a greater proportion of cones to rods than any other hominid species, allowing for better dark vision and making it better adapted to the long northern winter nights than closely related species.

There has been some discussion about the exact position of the arboreal Giant that are generally called Tree Folk in this classification, with claims for an earlier divergence from the general line, even pre the splitting off of the Ogres and trolls. This must be considered a bit of politically correct wishful thinking as it is clear on anatomical grounds that the Tree Folk are simply a type of giant adapted for life in the evergreen pine forest of the North. There is in fact little to justify their classification into a separate species; the sexual dimorphism evident (female Tree Folk are famously smaller and broader than the male) has been put forward as characteristic, but is in fact found in several other Giant variants of which the Tree Folk must just be considered one race.

fairy3Men, Gnomes and Goblins
If political correctness has muddied the waters of our understanding of the evolution of trolls and Tree Folk, then that is as nothing to the furore that has surrounded attempts to place, phylogenetically, the Goblins. Possibly this is because of the mythical suggestion that Goblins were derived (‘corrupted’) from elf stock. The simplest of anatomical analysis, however, firmly shows the that Goblins are not only close relatives of man, but should properly to classified as a member of the genus Homo. Those not old enough to remember when this conclusion was first presented to the general public cannot imagine the outcry that occurred. A more objective eye will however note the remarkable similarities between goblins and men, particularly in the skeleton. Differences, such as the prominent goblin brow ridge and squatter morphology can again be seen as adaptations for a cold climate. Similarly the eye fold (that gives the notorious goblin squint) is a variation of the encephalitic fold that occurs in some races of human and is also an adaptation to a cold climate; the roll of fat providing increased insulation for this delicate visual organ.

Goblin dentition particularly the increase in size of the canine teeth and the development of a carnassial gap, as found in dogs, are developments consistent with a move away from a omnivorous to a strictly carnivorous diet. Similarly the Goblin has the shortest digestive tract of any Hominini, another adaptation found in carnivorous animals. One unfortunate bi-product of this strictly animal (hopefully!) dietis a characteristic body odour, redolent with ketones, produced by the digestion of proteins as an energy source – this has not improved the social integration of goblins into a wider society.

Goblins do represent a morphologically heterogeneous species (probably the result historically of enforced interbreeding between goblins and just about anything). There does, however, seem to be some basis for the popular distinction of ‘grunts’ and ‘runts’. The relationship in some ways mirrors that of men and gnomes.

If the close relationship of Man and Goblins has been overlooked it is fair to say that the closeness of Man and Gnome has often been overstressed. Recent research has indicated that the Gnomes although still firmly in the Homo genus, diverged far earlier from the line leading to Men and Goblin than was previously thought. A superficial resemblance to some of the smaller races of Men (bushmen and pygmies) must be considered coincidental. Although it seems likely that the common ancestor of Men/Goblins and Gnomes was a medium sized general purpose biped, the ancestral gnomes rapidly evolved a reduced stature as they adopted a semi-troglodyte life style. Living originally in small caves and holes they became adept at burrowing, both for tubers and fungi (for which they retain a great fondness) and then to construct their own dwellings. This burrowing lifestyle produced extremely powerful large feet (as is well known) designed for pushing soil out of the tunnels during evacuations and the equally strong, digging, hands. This closeness (literally) to the soil, undoubtedly explains why Gnomes were the first of the Hominini species of Fairyland to develop agriculture. Although there have been several claims that Men practised agriculture first, recent dating of several gnome holes has indicated that they were settled while Men were essentially hunter/gatherers. This is not to say that the opposing claim, that Men learnt agriculture from the gnomes is correct. The weight of research now suggests that agriculture was invented twice in the hominid line, by both men and gnomes. The most compelling evidence for this is the difference in the different crop lines favoured. Root crops, such as beats and turnips and tubers ‘such’ as ‘taters’ were intensely cultivated by the gnomes, alongside several fruit species such as apples and pears that could be stored easily over winter. They are also rightly credited with the cultivation of the famed, mildly hallucinogenic pipe leaf Men favoured cereal crops, such as wheat and barley and were also the first to domesticate the larger livestock (cattle in particular would have proven far too great an initial challenge for gnomes!). One exception to this general rule is the rabbit. Rabbits (‘coneys’) are a much prized staple of the gnome and although initially it was thought that they were simply snared the discovery of ‘artificial’ warrens (possibly simply sheered up original rabbit runs) alongside gnome holes has shown that a degree of husbandry took place.

Gnomes and Men therefore grew complementary crops and it is not a great leap of faith to believe that trade between the two farming communities was brisk and advantageous to both parties. Soon Gnomes were producing cereal crops (and brewing beer!) and Men were varying their diet with roots and tubers (and smoking pipe leaf!). This trade probably helped establish the camaraderie that exists between the two species and the claims for a kinship than is not, unfortunately, supported by the scientific evidence.

Dwarves and Elves
As has been mention previously the phylogeny of dwarves and elves is the most complex in Fairyland Hominini evolution. The crux of the controversy surrounds whether dwarves and elves represent two separate branches from the Hominini line or share a common ancestor that that derived from the common stock. Once again politics have been instrumental in shaping the current paradigm – neither elvish or dwarvish scholars have been keen to accept a common heritage, even one from prehistory. At first inspection this conclusion seems the most plausible as physically the two species appear highly divergent. Dwarves are squat and heavily built and though taller than gnomes are seldom larger than a short man. Elves are lightly built and taller, although seldom reaching the size of a tall man. What basis is there for considering a common heritage? Their main shared characteristic is a greatly increased longevity in comparison with other hominids – the myth that elves are immortal is of course just that and is based partly of their longevity and also a certain homogeneity of appearance (blonde hair, blue eyed, pointed ears) that has often lead other races to conclude that it was a single immortal individual they were dealing with. The increased longevity in both dwarves and elves is also linked with a reduced reproductive drive. This common strategy suggests that both elves and dwarves evolved from the common stock during a period of great environmental stability – a lengthy interglacial episode. This has revised estimates of their divergence from the other hominids. Recent finds at several sites have in fact indicated that their genus was the dominant hominid for this considerable period and during this time lead to the divergence of a gracile (elf) and robust (dwarf) species. Although that it is clear from the artefacts found at many sites that during this time both dwarves and elves developed cultures with a sophisticated religious bases and pioneered several artistic forms, surprisingly there is no evidence that either developed agriculture per se. This is surprising as we almost take it for granted that an agricultural surplus is required to support a highly developed artistic / religious elite. That both dwarves and elves achieved this level of sophistication while pursuing a hunter/gatherer lifestyle illustrates just how good at it they were at it. The fact that both species have survived an ice-age and the evolution of several other hominini species bespeaks a resilience that almost staggers belief.

Why one Species of Hominid?
Perhaps some of the most exciting work being done in Comparative Paleoanthropology is in the investigation of Hominini species here and in Fairyland – in particular addressing the question of why, when there are so many Hominini species in Fairyland, we now only have the one: Homo sapiens.

Our own classification of humans and apes (“Hominini”, “hominid”, and “hominin” ) are in an almost constant state of flux (see below for a recent scheme). In general the Hominoids are now considered to be a primate super-family which contains the hominid family of great apes and humans. The homininae sub-family of hominids comprises the human and African ape lineages (which are more closely related to each other than orang-utans and gibbons). Of the Homininae the human tribe is now referred to as the Hominini and contains five genera:

The classification of the Hominini within the Hominoid Super-family

  • Family Hominidae
  • Subfamily Homininae
  • Tribe Hominini
  • Genus Ardipithecus – extinct
  • Genus Australopithecus – extinct
  • Genus Kenyanthropus – extinct
  • Genus Paranthropus – extinct
  • Genus Homo
  • Other Hominidae genera
  • Genus Pongo? (orangutans)
  • Genus Gigantopithecus – extinct
  • Genus Pan (chimpanzees)
  • Genus Gorilla (gorillas)
  • Genus Orrorin – extinct (has been placed within the Subfamily Homininae)

Approximate dating based on molecular evidence indicate that the four African species of Great Apes have common ancestors somewhere between eight and ten million years ago. The genus Pan is thought to have separated from the hominid lineage between five and six million years ago, developing into two different species (chimpanzee and bonobo) around one million years ago, which also saw our line diverging into several species of australopithecines and then several species of homo.
One of the earliest attempts at linking Fairyland Hominini and our own family trees (Figure 2) can now be considered simplistic considering current fossil finds such as Australopthicus garhi and A. aethiopius.

Given the rapid turnover in Paleoanthropological thinking figure 2 is still useful in highlighting three of the basic hypothesis concerning our understanding of Fairyland Hominini (and thus provides a useful grounding, until the dust on recent findings has settled). These three hypothesis are, firstly, that the dwarves and elves represent successful descendants of robust and gracile Australopithecine lines that diverged from the Hominini stock prior to the development of the genus Homo. Secondly that gnomes and goblins evolved from successful descendants of non-sapien members of the genus homo, plausibly H. habilis and H. erectus respectively. Thirdly that the Giant/ogre line, by virtue of their size and morphology, may represent the existence in Fairyland of the only sentient non-Hominini member of the family Hominidae; a descendant of the genus Gigantopithicus.

There is no doubt that of these hypotheses the third is the most controversial. Should it prove to be true it would involve a major rethink of all Hominidae relationships as Gigantopithicus is by current thinking more distantly related to us than the other Hominini tribe Gorilla. It must be said that this idea does owe something to our own willingness to believe that the yeti and bigfoot could represent the existence of our own extant species of Gigantopithicus. Perhaps fortuitously there are arguments that insist that the line of giants and ogres are descendants of the Paranthropus genus of Hominini, grown to larger size as a result of ice-age conditions, but certainly as far as Fairyland is concerned the possibility of a Gigantopithician origin can not be excluded. The relationship between Paranthropus and the Australopithecine line is complex, but distinct relationships between ogres and trolls and ‘parathropus’ points to this being an earlier divergence (prior to Australopithecus) from the Hominidae line.

Causes of Fairyland Hominini Success
The reasons for the successful adaptive radiation of the several hominini species in Fairyland are undoubtedly complex. It is clear though that the two principle factors are migration and timing of the of the last ice age(s). Although the Multi-regional/Out of Africa debate is still far from settled here, the most intellectually compelling argument for the existence of Fairyland’s varied species are that a delay of the onset of the last ice-age allowed for a more extensive northern migration and evolution of early members of the Homininae. Their descendants (dwarves, elves, gnomes, ogres et al) became, not only superbly adapted to the harsh ice-age winters, but through the development of sophisticated cultures were able to cope withboth climatic change and the post ice-age spread of ‘modern’ man. Thus, in the Northern hemisphere of Fairyland at least, Man became only one, and for many years not even the most dominant, of the several species of Fairyland Hominidae – and a late comer at that. And as the recent discovery of ‘gnome-like’ skeletons in Indonesia have suggested, for us this period may not have been as long ago as we once believed; a sobering thought.

Thanks to Jezz for the fab goblin and troll images.

First Published in the much-lamented SF SIGNALS

Published by


Author and scriptwriter, Terry Newman

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