I plan to make this a series of questions to avoid being overly broad. Each question will address a particular fantasy species ("race" in RPG terms).

The "racial" traits will be based on the content from this question though the specific race in question will have traits in the question: Medieval politics with fantasy races

World Concept: Similar to the Percy Jackson or Harry Potter series I am envisioning a world within a world.

  • Modern day setting
  • Fantasy races live in secret
  • An as yet undefined force/magic impairs humans when they interact with magical races/activity

My request: I am looking for peoples/cultures/tribes from the real world that no longer exist. The idea here is that x, y, z tribes that based on real world history ceased to functionally exist were actually comprised of a fantasy race passing as human. For example: The Huns of this world were actually Dwarves of the magical world.

  • In the past, fantasy races openly existed alongside humans
  • Many conflicts we study from the past were actually conflicts between fantasy races
  • At some point magic divided the human/fantasy worlds
  • For this question I am specifically interested in Elves. Your answer should provide a historic group or groups that best fit the constraints of the question and provide supporting evidence as to why it is a good answer.

Constraints:

  • The real world tribe (RWT) needs to be from Europe/Asia/Africa
  • The RWT should have ceased to exist prior to 1500 CE. They can have been destroyed in battle or absorbed into a larger culture or option 3 (whatever that is)
  • Should meet, as well as possible, the traits defined below (obviously some are magical and aren't possible in humans; I'm looking for compatibility, not exact matches):

Elves:

  • Elves are long lived though not immortal. On average elves live to be 350
  • Each elf tends to choose a few skills (usually fewer than 6) to perfect in their lifetime. These can be manufacturing skills, martial skills, as well as things like trading and public speaking.
  • Elves would rather be working on honing their skills (even martial skills) than fighting with others. They are not so much peaceful as often self absorbed and will ignore provocations
  • Once roused to fight they are deadly. They are not naturally stronger or faster but their combat skills are second to none.
  • Elves live in multi-racial cities for the most part, though some shun society and live in small enclaves reserved for elves (yes, in the forest mostly).
  • Elves can excel at pretty much anything due to their long lives and penchant for focus on certain things.
  • Elves generally tolerate most races, though can often see them as lesser beings due to their short lives
  • Elves inherently distrust orcs due to the fact that the orcs can't keep long term agreements
  • Elves would probably rule the world if they were not the smallest race by population
  • Elves have a higher percentage of their population capable of using magic

Additional new traits for the elves:

  • There are several flavors of elf. Wood, Wild, Dark, Sun, Moon (Yes this is currently D&D based in my head)
  • They are very similar but do fight one another from time to time. This means an answer should include similar peoples banded into subgroups that are geographically co-located.
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    Moderator note: There's a lot of discussion in comments about whether mapping fantasy "races" (more like species) to extinct human tribes/nations is racist and thus inappropriate on this site. I don't see racism for a couple reasons: (a) some of these fantasy species would be considered to be superior to humans so it's not an insult, (b) we can't identify the human races 'cause they're gone per the question, and (c) it's really about identifiable groups not races. But I'm sensitive to the complaint, so I'm going to make some edits that I hope will help. Discussion -> chat/meta please. – Monica Cellio Oct 12 at 1:59
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Oct 12 at 2:16
  • I know you've accepted an answer, but have you considered people of the Indus valley civilization? They are extinct, but mysterious (we can not read their script yet). They built huge prosperous cities, traded with Mesopotamia and Rome, yet were peaceful (very few weapons are found in the ruins of their cities) – DhDd Oct 16 at 12:34
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    @DhDd Feel free to write up an answer, it sounds like an interesting option. – James Oct 16 at 14:10
up vote 15 down vote accepted
+50

Phoenicians

There are plenty of good options but I'm going with the Phoenicians.

You asked for:

  • Each elf tends to choose a few skills (usually fewer than 6) to perfect in their lifetime. These can be manufacturing skills, martial arts, etc.

Humans tend to specialize in a particular skill, so only 6 specialized skills isn't a hard stretch. Specialization is especially easy in a society where you can rely on other people's specialties.

Elvish long life and specialization translates to extreme specialization and the formation of specialized guilds in normal humans. The Phoenicians were famous for their metalwork and shipbuilding. It was far enough ahead of surrounding civilizations that metal goods were a major trade good for the Phoenicians.

  • [These can be manufacturing] skills, as well as things like trading and public speaking.

One does not have an empire with influence over much of the Mediterranean without the ability to motivate and organize traders, workers and politicians. Phoenician Influence (source Yellow cities are Phoenician)

  • Elves would rather be working on honing their skills (even martial skills) than fighting with others. They are not so much peaceful as often self absorbed and will ignore provocations

War is expensive and the Phoenicians are more known for their trade than their war-making (though the Persians were able to build a Phoenician based navy.)

  • Once roused to fight they are deadly. They are not naturally stronger or faster but their combat skills are second to none.

Phoenician navies made Persia a great power in the Mediterranean.

  • Elves live in multi-racial cities for the most part, though some shun society and live in small enclaves reserved for elves (yes, in the forest mostly).

Any coastal trading city will have a broad exposure to many other cultures. Such exposure helps them make better deals. Religious practices of the Phoenicians had plenty of groves of trees (much to the chagrin of those prudish proto-Israelites)

  • Elves generally tolerate most races, though can often see them as lesser beings due to their short lives.

I think normal in-group bias will take care of this one. I think any moderately aggressive culture will have this characteristic. If the Phoenicians didn't do this militarily, they would certainly have done it in trade.

  • Elves have a higher percentage of their population capable of using magic

Advance technology is indistinguishable from magic. Also, putting symbols into clay or stone then have an idea pop into the head of a reader is pretty freakin' magical. Their ships certainly appeared magical to anyone who didn't build ships.

  • ...Several flavors of Elves

Given the reach of the Phoenician ships, they were in contact with many different regional cultures. A search of "Phoenician Art" shows considerable variation in art styles. While in real life, this indicates that the Phoenicians borrowed art styles from trading partners, in the context of this world, all those different art styles could indicate distinct Elvish 'races'.

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    The problem is that the Phoenicians are very well known -- one can hardly make them into mysterious elves. Moreover, they are known as sharp merchants, which is hardly an elvish characteristic. Moreover, their descendants the Lebanese still exist (and are stereotypically known as sharp merchants). Did I mention that all ancient sources agree that the Phoenicians were sharp merchants? When the Carthaginians absolutely had to fight a war, say against Rome, they hired mercenaries... – AlexP Oct 4 at 22:05
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    @AlexP the whole point was that the group/race/organization/tribe etc, did exist, but no longer exists. The racial traits also state that elves love to specialize. They could certainly be merchants...please stop trolling the question and commenting without understanding. – James Oct 5 at 5:16
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    Funny you didn't mention the human sacrifice. Elves (before JRR Tolkien sweetened them up) were definitely mysterious, often dangerous, sometimes downright demonic figures in literature. Think Erlkonig or David Bowie's character in Labyrinth. Scary creatures who would snatch children. The Phoenicians were known to worship Baal and other demons through human sacrifice (of children), so there's another similarity. – Joe Oct 5 at 17:53

One simple one would be the neanderthals and other extinct branches from the human ancestral tree.

Many people now a days have Neanderthal DNA, but there are no neanderthal still living (that we know of!). We know a little about their culture, but not a lot, meaning that you can make a lot of stuff up to fill in the holes.

Even less is known of the Denisovan, but evidence shows that their DNA is at least partly responsible for how well adapted the Inuit are to the cold far north.

Now, if ancestors of these groups (and others) had continued to exist, develop, and adapt, then you could extrapolate forward to where descendants of neanderthals are modern day dwarves, and descendants of denisovan are modern day elves, and other ancient side branches developed into trolls, orcs, and whatever else, then you can get a lot of diversity, and say that most people of european and asian descent have at least some dwarf DNA, and most pacific islanders, australian aboriginals, and native american people have at least a little elf DNA, but that those groups didn't actually die out, and there are still more or less pure blood elves and dwarves (maybe with a bit of human DNA thrown in) in out of the way places where no one will bother them.

The wiki on Interbreeding between archaic and modern humans has some info on "Neanderthals, Denisovans, as well as several unidentified hominins". The unidentified hominins could be the other races that you are wanting to incorporate.

  • Bear in mind, you are talking about species, not races. – Justin Thyme Oct 11 at 15:25
  • @JustinThyme Doing a search for races vs species, I find this: "In biology, races are genetically distinct populations within the same species; they typically have relatively minor morphological and genetic differences." Now, are elves a race or a species? They can breed with humans, which could imply race, or it could just mean that the differences between species are so slight that they can breed. Like Lion + Tiger = Liger. Lions and tigers are different species, but in the same genus, kinda like humans and denisovans. – AndyD273 Oct 11 at 15:55
  • I refer you to a reference I made in a comment to the question. Why Race Is Not a Thing, According to Genetics – Justin Thyme Oct 11 at 16:10
  • @JustinThyme I agree with you. I really believe there is one race, the human race, and that's it. The question is about elves. If elves existed, would they be human? If they aren't human, then they are a different species, like the difference between lions and tigers. Since elves are imaginary, and this question its taking place in an imaginary world, then the answer to that question is up to James. To be really clear, what is the point that are you trying to make? – AndyD273 Oct 11 at 16:17
  • @ AndyD273 The point is, the OP seems to be asking us to impose his definition of 'race' or 'species' onto a human historical division of 'races' or 'species'. It is like asking 'what historical race are best equivalent to 'schizophrenics', when schizophrenia is not a racial characteristic, it is a human variant completely independent of race. The entire list of the OP's criteria (except for magic and longevity) are not racial characteristics, but personality characteristics, found in every race/culture/tribe/horde. – Justin Thyme Oct 11 at 16:30

Akrotiri - potentially seen as the insipration for Atlantis.

It was a bronze age town located on Santorini which profited of the rich soil from the vlocanic eruptions, until such an eruption blew up half of the isalnd and the town along with it (or so the non-magical historians think, little do they know about the truth behind the powerful illusion hiding Atlantis and its elven citizens).

Each elf tends to choose a few skills (usually fewer than 6) to perfect in their lifetime. These can be manufacturing skills, martial arts, etc.

Given the traditional greek system where one would be trained to be phyiscally fit and get a besic education in reading, writing and philosophy or a trade, before specialising in one or any few disciplines. Highly specialised individuals such as artisans, philosophers, but also warriors were not uncommon in the ancient Greek (or as mentioned by @Green Phoenician culture).

Once roused to fight they are deadly. They are not naturally stronger or faster but their combat skills are second to none.

Even though little actual texts survived from the time and we only have excavation, we look at the context. Considering the fact that a small island kept unconquered for 500 years in the face of immense military powers such as Egypt or the Greek states speaks for itself.

Elves generally tolerate most races, though can often see them as lesser beings due to their short lives.

Santorini is a small island which could never have provided enough materials for the risee of such a large city with rich culture without a lot of trade which naturally meant getting in contact with people from different regions and cultures. Thus, it can be assumed that people were quite open to the world.

Elves generally tolerate most races, though can often see them as lesser beings due to their short lives.

Assuming that longevity originally stemmed from better medicines and treatment methods available, it is easy to imagine that the people living within the save quarters of the city lived on average much more safely and longer than people from surrounding smaller island or tribal populations who were sometimes derisively viewed as barbarians 'the ones with beards who do not know how to shave' due to their more primitive lifestyle and shorter, 'dirtier' lives.

Elves have a higher percentage of their population capable of using magic.

As Akrotiri is one of the potential candidates for the mythological Atlantis of Plato's story, which place would be more adequate for suggesting a magic-using society?

The Aryans [no offense meant it's an old term with a specific meaning that has since been hijacked by certain unpalatable groups] from the Eurasian Steppe came in to Europe in a series of mass migrations, the last of them is thought to have been in the late Bronze Age (c.1000BC). The last large group to follow their ways and culture were known as the Scythians these were the Elves, their cultural longevity was due to their long lives and sophisticated culture. They were however eventually destroyed by the Sarmatians in the fourth century BC, and for the purposes of this set up, the few remaining pure-bloods scattered into Northern Europe as refugee bands in isolated areas.

The Scythians fit the bill reasonably well, they were a highly cultured group who excelled at many crafts, they were friendly with their neighbours, tolerant of other cultures, and they were peerless fighters with the traditional Elven weapon, the bow, although that was from horseback. Importantly they seem to have avoided more battles than they fought, their political influence outside their borders was exercised primarily through money and trade. There is a story that the Persians sent an army into Scythia, to get them to stop supplying the Greeks with grain, the Scythians ran them ragged for months rather than engage them. When the Persians finally got the horsemen to meet them on a battlefield the Scythians commanders were more interested in hunting a rabbit dinner than watching the overwhelmingly large enemy force deploy. Legend has it that the Persian general was so shaken by the show of total confidence in the face of such superior numbers that he packed up his massive army and went home. The only thing that doesn't really fit your specifications about the Scythians is that the archaeology suggests they were more semi-settled nomads than they were city builders. Otherwise they fit nicely, especially if you cast the Persian empire as the orcs, and there are parallels you could use - vast hordes bent on conquest etc...

The reason I used the ancient Aryans as the starting point for this answer is the Drow or Dark Elves; I propose that one could realistically give them a very recent and nasty resurgence within this framework. Drow have certain views on racial superiority, racial purity, and political process that very closely match the views and actions of the Nazi party. In fact staging a Night of the Long Knives is their standard way to settle policy disputes at all levels of society. The attempted creation of a master Aryan Race fits too; the fact that they were to be blonde and blue-eyed is obviously either an attempt to breed back to the old Elven stock of generations long past or a transparent attempt to frame the High Elves, who the Drow traditionally despise, for the whole thing.

How about not going for a whole tribe/people, but for a class/caste of people?

The curtain rises on ancient Rome, namely the ruling class of the patricians. You couldn't become a patrician other than by birth, which suspiciously fits the bill of a possible different race.

There were only an overseeable amount of different gentes (patrician families), some 4-5 dozen namely. This would beautifully fit your longevity and small numbers.

Due to segregation by class & status, the patrician elves would often live in elf-only-districts in Rome and a few other cities. These areas being home to lots of beautification and parks with trees and such.

The roman pantheon was known to incorporate not only the gods from annexed peoples, but also elevate emperors into god-hood. Many of your elves can do magic, that would fit perfectly again.

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    Also makes sense if it’s an attempt to keep magical bloodlines pure. +1 – Joe Bloggs Oct 13 at 7:56

Based on history, we may have a precedent with the Tuatha de Daanan (Children/Tribe of Dana), also known as the Faerie (beautiful people). In mythology, they were long lived magic users, whose influence waned over time and eventually became refugees in their own land, surrounded by the invaders.

Historically, the celts were pushed westward and ultimately hit the island of Eire (Ireland), where they pushed out the prior inhabitants.

If the legends are any reflection of the reality, then an invading horde of bronze age barbarian refugees contacted a peaceful agrarian society that was at what we might consider a late medieval level of technology and advanced (for the day) practices of personal hygiene (accounting for the reputation for beauty and relatively long life), which they then proceeded to burn, pillage, and destroy.

The last known remnants of the Tuatha de Danaan were recorded in legend as dying of old age shortly after the introduction of Christianity to Ireland.

The legends of "changelings", where the faerie would leave their infants with a celtic family, are signs of the refugees desperate need to protect their children when all hope was lost for the adults.

Two ideas.

First, ancient Japan. Specifically, the Samurai, who were in many ways isolated from the rest of the Japanese culture and very fierce warriors. The ancient Japanese culture was very precise about perfecting things in the daily routine like tea service/ceremony. The weakness here is their isolation from the rest of the world.

Second, if it works better for the story for Elves to be more European, you could use Druids. Builders of the monuments such as Stonehenge, they had abilities and knowledge unavailable to others around them. In dealings among other fantasy races, you could cast the Vikings or Arthur's Knights as a foil.

It's a shame we're limited to the Eastern hemisphere, or Mayans/Aztecs would make good choices, especially in combination with Eskimos and other early Native Americans and the Polynesian peoples in certain island regions cast for other faerie races.

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    Despite what often popularly believed the Druids did not build Stonehenge they were the priest/ruling class of the Celtuc people's who first came to Britain around the year 2000B.C. in the Bronze Age. Stonehenge was built by Neolithic people's with the first phases of activity in the area around 3000B.C. a thousand years earlier. – Sarriesfan Oct 4 at 22:36

How about the Indus Valley civilization? They were a bronze age civilization who created huge planned cities, in what is now India and Pakistan. They are one of the few civilizations whose script we haven't yet deciphered. Thus, a good choice to base a mysterious elven race upon.

Mohenjodaro

(Photograph by M. Imran, on wikipedia)

Each elf tends to choose a few skills (usually fewer than 6) to perfect in their lifetime. These can be manufacturing skills, martial skills, as well as things like trading and public speaking.

For a bronze age civilization, they had plenty going for them, so there would have been plenty to learn. Large well planned cities requires planning and architecture skills, sculptures, jewelry, pottery require (different) artistic skills. They traded a lot with other cities, so navigation and ship-building skills were greatly appreciated. Apparently, they also achieved skills in accurate measurement of length, mass, and time, thus requiring mathematicians and engineers.

Elves would rather be working on honing their skills (even martial skills) than fighting with others. They are not so much peaceful as often self absorbed and will ignore provocations

While many artifacts have been found in Indus valley cities, not many weapons have been found. Fighting is not that interesting, thus why have weapons?

Elves live in multi-racial cities for the most part, though some shun society and live in small enclaves reserved for elves (yes, in the forest mostly).

Indus valley civilization built huge cities complete with drains and public baths. They traded with civilizations as far away as Mesopotamia and Egypt.. so this scenario is completely plausible.

Elves would probably rule the world if they were not the smallest race by population

Since they are not interested in fighting, why even attempt to rule the world?

It is not clear why the Indus valley civilization perished, some scientists believe it was changing climate (increasing aridification).

The question leaves a lot to be desired, in terms of definition of terms and scope.

Except for the longevity and magic part, your description of 'elves' pretty much covers the scope of high-functioning autistics. This group is defined by particular genetic aberrations, but it would certainly not be referred to or categorized into or by the descriptors 'races/hordes/cultures/tribes'.

It is sort of like defining all 'red heads' as a 'race'.

Are you speaking about a particular sub-set of genetic traits? In which case, these genetic traits could be distributed across many, or all, races. That is, the coincidence of particular genetic traits would not be defined as a race but as a personality sub type.

Are you talking about a particular genetic trait that is evident in only ONE race, in which case I posit you are talking about a species? No human race is 'pure' in the sense that it has an abundance of genes only associated with that race, except as caused by localized inbreeding. Most of what we refer to as human 'races' are defined primarily on cosmetics - what the external appearance is. Black, white, brown, etc. Not by intrinsic personality traits or abilities. The later are not a racial characteristic, they are a personality characteristic. Introvert/extrovert, calm/excitable, reserved/gregarious, and so forth. These trait are not limited or defined by 'race'.

On the other hand, if you are defining your group as having exclusively particularly different DNA characteristics, such as the number of chromosomes, you are not talking about race, but species. Are your groupings capable of inter-breeding? Can one group share the defining genes that govern the unique characteristics with another group? Can the Orcs somehow acquire the longevity gene, and live to be as old as Elves, or is that gene somehow only capable of being manifest in Elves?

On the other, other hand, if you are trying to interlace fantasy world and mythological genetics with real world genetics (similar to Greek mythology allowing limited gene transfer between the Gods and Humans) then looking for past human equivalents is not necessarily the way to go.

Render unto mythology what is mythology

The answer to this question is only answerable from a mythological perspective.

Why not simply posit that all of the Greek, Roman, and other mythological gods were real, truly existed, walked among humans, bred, never really disappeared, but adopted a veil of secrecy to avoid persecution, as the human population reached a critical mass and 'overpowered' their status and power? I mean, seven billion people against one god? That is a lot of persecution. Look what happened to ALL human religions, as the population exploded?

Methinks you are far better off looking for antecedents in the mythological gods, not in human genetic divisions.

  • Hmmm ... Orson Scott Card's "Mithermages" series comes to mind – pojo-guy Oct 11 at 15:17
  • Justin you are ignoring the request in the question. Being that it is my world I define what is and is not a racial trait. Different races can have different tendencies because I say they can. Please don't ignore the premise of the question. This does not answer the question I asked. – James Oct 11 at 16:10
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    So I bring your attention to my first line in my answer. We need more clarification as to how you are defining what is and is not a racial characteristic. If you are defining racial traits by your own definition, and then not clarifying it, then how can we identify any particular historical grouping as likened to 'Elves'? I stand by my contention that high functioning autistics as a group better meet your criteria than any particular human race. So by your definition, are high functioning autistics a 'race'? – Justin Thyme Oct 11 at 16:18
  • Hi. It looks like Stack Exchange robot flagged your answer automagically as VLQ, and I'm not sure I disagree. If you really believe that "The question leaves a lot to be desired, in terms of definition of terms and scope." maybe you should rather comment to OP and ask clarifications for definitions, and clearer / narrower scope? For now it is on the verge between being an answer and being just a long, long comment. Clicking "Skip", but please, see if you can make it more "answery". – Mołot Oct 11 at 16:33
  • Best answer of all, thus far! Nice way to turn basic racism on its head! After reading through all the other answers, this whole business just feels "dirty" in a very existential way. I mean, it's all well and good to equate Aryans or Phoenecians with Elves (and no, neither of those peoples are no longer in existence! Their descendants are alive and well, and some may be reading this query!) but who gets to be Dwarves? The Jews? Who gets to be Orcs? Blacks? O, how is this line of questioning not inherently problematic? – elemtilas Oct 11 at 16:38

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