We continue on our survey of the fantastical kindreds found in my work in progress Shadow of the King by making a deep dive. Deep as in, under the earth. Yes, we’re going to talk about dwarves.
DWARVES (Homo neanderthalensis nanus)
A while back I summarized five different types of dwarf from world folklore. If you like, go back and read that post before proceeding.
Properly speaking, “dwarves” are a product of Norse mythology, but there are many dwarf-like beings around the world. I would point, for example, to the yakshas of South Asia, the khnumu of Egypt, and the dactyls of Greece as but three examples.
In one way or another, all of these beings might be described as secretive on the one hand and highly skilled on the other. Though in Norse mythology they were generally antagonistic to humankind, this stance isn’t necessarily found in other cultures. By and large, dwarves are not so much warriors, as is usually the case in D&D, but craftspersons, guardians of treasure, and (often begrudging) dispensers of hidden knowledge: magic, the healing arts, etc. They are especially associated with the earth and might even live underground.
When I think of dwarves, I imagine stout, muscular, and large-nosed cave dwellers. In short, I think of Neanderthals. By linking dwarves and Neanderthals, I’m tipping my hat to the now discredited notion that European fairy myths began as dim memories of humans’ interactions with an older, indigenous group, sometimes proposed to be a different ethnic strain of modern humans, occasionally identified with Neanderthals. Whoever they were, the theory goes, these strange beings lived in isolation (perhaps under the earth), competed for resources, and perhaps occasionally abducted women and children—to shore up their own dwindling numbers?
At any rate, in the land of Saynim, dwarves are one of a number of kindreds that I propose to be derived Neanderthal subspecies. Of these, dwarves are closest to the original genetic stock. All of these groups display their Neanderthal heritage in a number of ways:
• They are muscular, big-boned, and generally stocky of build. Their shinbones and forearms are proportionally shorter than the same features on H. sapiens. This makes them slow runners, as they are built for power rather than speed.
• Their upper body musculature specializes in explosive power and side-to-side movement. The attachments for the pectoral muscles are up to twice the size of an average H. sapiens.
• Their broad shoulders lack backward displacement, limiting their ability to throw projectiles long distances. Simply put, they lack the characteristic “throwing arm” found in H. sapiens.
• Their facial features include a larger than average nose, heavy brow ridges, large jaw and teeth, weak chin, and a long, low skull with a rounded brain case.
• I imagine dwarves and their near kin as more linguistically adept than their Neanderthal ancestors. Most can mimic H. sapiens speech patterns almost perfectly. Due to differences in the configuration of their vocal apparatus, however, some individuals have a highly nasalized speech and sometimes have difficulty pronouncing the quantal vowel sounds (the ee in beet, the oo in boot, and the a in father; they tend to substitute the i in bit, the oo in took, and either the a in hat or the u in mud).
It is known that modern humans possess a small amount of Neanderthal DNA, so interbreeding between the two stocks is certainly possible, but not without some difficulties. There is no evidence of Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA, which is passed from mother to daughter, in the human genome. This suggests at least one of the following scenarios:
- Neanderthal mDNA carried harmful mutations that led to the extinction of sapiens-Neanderthal offspring from a Neanderthal mother.
- Offspring of Neanderthal mothers were exclusively raised in Neanderthal groups and went extinct with them.
- Female Neanderthals and male sapiens did not produce fertile offspring.
In other words, genetic problems may have arisen with at least some Neanderthal-sapiens offspring. In Shadow of the King, the same factors figure in when discussing dwarf-human or dwarf-elf interbreeding.