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I'm building a fantasy world with a humanoid species (basically, "elves") which refuses to use dead wood.

Context

  • They don't use dead wood because they don't want to. Consider that trees are sacred and should not be maimed or killed to create tools or materials and that even using wood from a tree which died from natural circumstances would be viewed as profanating a corpse.

  • It is the same for bushes, grass, vegetal life in general.

  • They live in big forests and use a very slow and meticulous kind of magic to gently bend tree branches into primitive houses. Then they use animal skins, feathers, silk and whatnot to create hermetic walls, for instance.

  • They mostly rely on animal bones and organs and on rocks (eg silex) and minerals to create tools.

  • They eat meat and fruits, which they collect from the trees with much respect and caution : they never eat more than half of a fruit and always put the seeds in fertile earth with the remaining portion of fruit, so that they have a good chance to grow into trees.

Problem

How could this species use fire ? They can't burn wood, obviously, and if lightning were to strike a tree and set it on fire, they could not use it because of the tree's sacredness (the elves would have to extinguish the fire to save the tree).

What kind of combustibles could they use, apart from wood ?

I would like them to be able to melt metal, so the fires should be extremely hot. And I would prefer not to have to resort to magic to make it possible (hence the science-based tag and not the magic tag), but a small bit of magic could be tolerable.

So far, I've thought of animal oil and lava, but I've been wondering if some people here could come up with better ideas, provided with references about whether their fires could melt metal.

Thanks !

EDIT :

My elves never ever used dead wood. They awakened before other intelligent species and never had the thought to use dead wood for their purposes. It would be about as alien as using a dead relative's body as a vacuum cleaner bag.

It is accepted to collect and eat fruits somehow like it would be for humans to milk wild cows (as long as you do not kill their offspring and you do not take all the milk from them) or to collect honey from wild bees.

Why is that so ? Mostly because of very strong religious / life-philosphy reasons. It has always been so and you cannot bypass such a strong tradition without becoming the public ennemy number one. Roughly : plants are sacred, you don't do them harm ; animals are not sacred, you can do whatever you like with them.

In present days, they are blacksmiths. I do not mind whether they have been so for very long, or if it is fairly recent because they heard of humans using metal and wanted to copy them, without sacrificing wood or plants.

How will I judge answers ?

  • Obviously, no vegetal life should be harmed in the process and no dead vegetal material should be used in the process.

  • The resulting fire should be able to melt at least some kinds of metal which are relevant to create tools : bronze would be enough, but you'll get "bonus points" if more resistant kinds of metal can be melted.

  • The combustible / fire should be relatively easy to access. Using the heart of a star like Thor in Marvel's Infinity War could work, but my elves don't travel across space.

  • The combustible / fire should be usable by many blacksmiths, in various places. A single great furnace like Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings would not really suit my needs.

  • The process should fit in a fantasy world. Tweaking with atoms and molecules would feel eerie - but well, if you can explain it in a convincing fantasy manner, that's okay.

  • Using a small bit of magic is acceptable, but would result in "malus points".

  • Scientific evidences and / or references regarding the fire viability (in itself and in a blacksmithing context) will get "bonus points".

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  • $\begingroup$ What is your scenario? Are you looking for something to replace the previous usage of wood, etc.? Or are you looking for something other than wood, etc. from which to develop your 'elven' society from scratch? Why are trees and plants non-permissible, yet other living things are? How is one answer better than another answer (e.g. how do you judge answers, what are your criteria) $\endgroup$ – dot_Sp0T Aug 11 '18 at 14:17
  • $\begingroup$ @dot_Sp0T Alright, I'll make an edit to try to answer your questions ! $\endgroup$ – Daneel Aug 11 '18 at 14:18
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding, Daneel! If you have a moment, please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. You may also find Worldbuilding Meta and The Sandbox (both of which require 5 rep to post on) useful. Here is a meta post on the culture and style of Worldbuilding.SE, just to help you understand our scope and methods, and how we do things here. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Gryphon - Reinstate Monica Aug 11 '18 at 14:35
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    $\begingroup$ Do they know that coal comes from dead forests? $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Aug 11 '18 at 14:47
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    $\begingroup$ Lava is generally not hot enough to melt iron. the better question is what do they cook their food with. $\endgroup$ – John Aug 11 '18 at 15:08
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Here are my ideas: Peat, coal, oil, carbonised animals, golden mirrors.

Peat can provide an easily accessible source of combustible material. On its own it can burn hot enough to fire pottery to Earthenware temperatures, and smelt tin and copper.

If available, coal can also be used, and oil seeps exist that can be used. The nature of coal and peat is flammable rocks and soil, rather than "dead trees".

Most organic matter can be carbonized, the bodies of dead elves (do elves die?) could be carbonised in something that looks rather like a charcoal pit, and with much the same result: chunks of fairly pure carbon that can burn at high temperatures. Pretty much any animal material could be used for this process. Getting the fire lit would be tricky, so keep a candle (made of animal fat) burning.

If absolutely no burning is possible, large mirrors made of cold worked gold can be used to focus the sun's light to reach temperatures sufficient to smelt tin and perhaps copper. Once sufficient metal has been made, larger bronze mirrors can be made to reach the higher temperatures needed to smelt iron.

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    $\begingroup$ "An elf's water is his own; the carbon belongs to the tribe." $\endgroup$ – Michael Schumacher Aug 13 '18 at 8:08
  • $\begingroup$ carbonizing a animal requires a lot of fuel however, with wood you just use more wood but animals don't burn that well. peat is a good idea, dung could also work. $\endgroup$ – John Nov 23 at 14:15
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Since they don't know that coal comes from ancient forests, they can use it for fire and metallurgy.

Coal has always been used by humans for fire and metallurgy, so they might do the same.

The earliest recognized use is from the Shenyang area of China 4000 BC where Neolithic inhabitants had begun carving ornaments from black lignite. Coal from the Fushun mine in northeastern China was used to smelt copper as early as 1000 BC.

They have only to avoid making charcoal.

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    $\begingroup$ Note you will need somethin else to light the coal, lighting coal without a starter is nigh impossible. they might also e able to use garbage such as nut shells, corn husks and the like. $\endgroup$ – John Aug 11 '18 at 15:05
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    $\begingroup$ I am pretty sure coal is a recent discovery, historically. I am pretty sure they started with it in the Middle Ages; the Romans did not use coal. As regards starting it, there could be a naturally occurring coal fire near where the elves live. If their fires run low they go get some more there. $\endgroup$ – Willk Aug 11 '18 at 15:14
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    $\begingroup$ @John, they could use animal hair and strips of dried skins as tinder. Might be smelly but should work. You could also then have a dollop of animal fat/oil inside a dried skin (that itself had been presoaked in fat/oil) to act as a modern-day firelighter. $\endgroup$ – EveryBitHelps Aug 11 '18 at 16:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Willk coal has been around forever, it was only used widespread in blacksmithing once deforestation had made charcoal harder to come by. Charcoal is much easier to work with in a forge, but as just heat for smelting it works fine once you get it lit. $\endgroup$ – John Aug 11 '18 at 16:34
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    $\begingroup$ Do they consider mushrooms sacred too? If not, there are quite a few varieties that burn very well at least as a starter (various Formes species for example). They just have to be careful not to burn any toxic ones (many of the toxins will end up in the smoke). $\endgroup$ – Austin Hemmelgarn Aug 12 '18 at 0:16
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Fish

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_sturgeon

This sturgeon is a valuable gourmet food fish, as well as a source of specialty products including caviar and isinglass. "In 1860, this species, taken on incidental catches of other fishes, was killed and dumped back in the lake, piled up on shore to dry and be burned, fed to pigs, or dug into the earth as fertilizer." It was even stacked like cordwood and used to fuel steamboats.

The idea of catching animals and burning them for fuel has stuck with me. Your elves catch fatty animals, dry them and use them for fuel. Sturgeon are as big as logs, and pound for pound dried would no doubt burn hotter than wood.

Sturgeon are huge. But I was thinking for a fantasy you could scale it up, and have your elves hunt truly massive water monsters for their fuel value. Which of course is not an original idea either.

whale hunt http://wildwhales.org/threats/whaling/

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks to this answer I've spent a good half-hour researching the energy densities of animals as compared to charcoal or coal. Surprising number of ( pay-walled:( ) papers. It seems theoretically viable, if its an oily fish, you have a lot of them (on the order of 1000lbs fresh per smith per month), and your elves can stand the smell. $\endgroup$ – HammerN'Songs Aug 11 '18 at 22:09
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    $\begingroup$ you also need a way to pressurise the oil, a liquid fuel will not work in forge, it needs ot be aerosolized to burn fast enough. $\endgroup$ – John Aug 11 '18 at 23:37
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    $\begingroup$ @John There are solutions to that. I've seen designs for waste oil burners which basically use the heat of the fire to vaporize the oil being fed into it (like a camping stove, if you've seen those) $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Aug 12 '18 at 7:20
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Why not oils derived from plants?

If they eat only half the fruit and then plant the rest, could they not use the same approach for, say, olive oil? A gentle olive oil press doesn't harm the pits, and leaves much of the flesh behind, which means the seed and flesh could then be planted.

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Dung Charcoal

A staple fuel for grassland people is dried dung.

It generally doesn't burn particularly hot, but if you a assume a source of dung that is both unusually dense and comes in cohesive chunks of significant size, then activating it as wood can be made into charcoal or coal into coke offers a route to higher burning temperatures.

This actually seems to be a real technology.

I have no idea if the dung of real animals forms charcoal hot enough for forging iron, but it represents a modest request on a readers suspension of disbelief.

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Swamp gas

Biogas, mostly made of methane, is formed during the natural decomposition of organic matter when exposed to certain bacterias, as typically occurring in swamps and other environments.

If you have something to ignite the fire, methane can burn.

The elfs might even have figured out the right bacteria population to maximise their yields from any biomass that is acceptable to reuse once dead, it doesn't sound any more difficult than beer manufacturing.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_gas#Biogas

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Bones

The word bonfire is actually rooted from bonefire, and is literally that.

Plants sacred? Never mind, burn dead animals instead.

Source: Merriam-Webster - The word is actually derived from Middle English bonefire, meaning literally "a fire of bones."

But in worshipp of seinte iohan the people woke at home & made iij maner of fyres. On was clene bones & no wode & that is callid a bone fyre. A nothir is clene wode & no bones & that is callid a wode fyre fore people to sitte & to wake there by. —John Mirk, Liber Festivalis, 1486

1 https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/the-secret-history-of-bonfire

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Fire has a survival advantage--cooking, heat, light, forging. Therefore a disposition toward religious notions about the sacredness of trees hurts their survival, and would be selected against. Eventually only Elves without this useless notion would remain.

How about if they use other Elves to fuel their fires?

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    $\begingroup$ Or they could just use radiators for heat and oxy-acetylene torches for the forges. Once we go outside the bounds of the question, anything is permitted. $\endgroup$ – Stian Yttervik Aug 13 '18 at 9:49
  • $\begingroup$ sure, if anything is permitted perhaps Amazon drones can deliver the radiators. $\endgroup$ – Max Hodges Aug 27 '18 at 4:46

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