I've never ever seen even a suggestion of an idea of how dwarves actually can live how they are most often depicted - underground without handwaving or magic (which is just a fancy word for "handwaving").

In this question I will be focusing on the most popular idea for a fantasy dwarf - short, stout, bulky with muscles, is an exceptional blacksmith, stonemason, lives underground in mountains, etc.

Firstly, how would you even dig deep tunnels for living into a mountain in sort-of medieval times? Ventilation is nearly impossible so even if you somehow (and they don't have how) get rid of all the dust from digging you'd suffocate at some point.

Light is another problem with no magical mushrooms/crystals/thingamajigs to illuminate the halls you will spend your life in pitch darkness where no amount of darkvision will help you and I'm not sure if seeing infrared wouldn't introduce more unknowns or problems than it would solve.

Food being the last immediately visible problem - nothing that grows on rock or in complete darkness OR BOTH can sustain even a human child, not to mention an adult individual with a VERY active lifestyle.

Is there any way to, at least somewhat realistically, solve these problems or are my dwarves doomed to be sustained on handwavium?

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    $\begingroup$ Hello J.Doe. I didn't cast that VTC vote as "too broad," but I can see why it was cast. You're asking three related questions: how to dig the tunnels, how to illuminate the tunnels, how to feed the masses. But, related or not, that's a lot to ask when SE's model is "one-specific-question/one-best-answer." When you ask future questions, remember that it's preferable to use multiple posts than to crush it all into one. Cheers. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    May 16, 2019 at 13:29
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH, thank you very much for reminding me! :) By the way, I didn't even know there was a vote to close. $\endgroup$
    – J. Doe
    May 16, 2019 at 13:47
  • $\begingroup$ Related question that may be helpful: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/10102/… $\endgroup$
    – James
    May 16, 2019 at 16:26
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    $\begingroup$ So odd as it sounds, you might want to try playing Dwarf Fortress. Though chances are if you do you won't be entirely convinced of the viability of a dwarfy life. $\endgroup$
    – aslum
    May 16, 2019 at 16:52
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    $\begingroup$ Have you heard of pygmies? “Other evidence points towards unusually low levels of the expression of the genes encoding the growth hormone receptor and growth hormone compared to the related tribal groups, associated with low serum levels of insulin-like growth factor-1 and short stature.” $\endgroup$ May 16, 2019 at 17:11

13 Answers 13


Dwarves might not need to dig tunnels and caves, but instead rely on natural ones that they modify, like the Migovec and Postojna cave systems in Slovenia, which are 42 km and 24 km long, respectively, and have good natural ventilation. We must also remember that cave-dwelling humans actually existed in paleolithic times (though they were not as common as the 'caveman' stereotype suggests).

Light is certainly a problem, though with good enough ventilation and access to wood from the surface, torches could be used. The caves might also connect to coal mines, with easy access to coal for heating, smithing, and lighting. There might also be sources of methane, especially if there are large underground lakes.

Food is the biggest issue. Certainly, dwarves could grow mushrooms and eat fish from underground lake and river systems, but that would likely only feed rather small populations. Some amount of surface hunting and gathering and even farming would be necessary to sustain sizable populations.

A somewhat reasonable compromise would have dwarves mainly living in sheltered valleys surrounded by mountains and in cave systems in these mountains, where they mine coal, iron, precious metals, and precious stones. Natural chimneys in the mountains could allow high-temperature smithing. The only entrances to the valleys are through the caves, and this gives rise to the notion that dwarves live wholly underground; a notion that dwarves find it profitable to maintain. Visitors to the caves are never shown the valleys.

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    $\begingroup$ if you watch Fellowship of the Ring Moria seems to be like this for the most part. The "mine" they travel through looks like a natural ravine the dwarves then carved a path through. $\endgroup$ May 16, 2019 at 12:45
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    $\begingroup$ You know who else lives in the ground in tunnels ? Moles. So if you live like a mole, you eat like a mole : insects. Realistic dwarves could have big insect farms to provide the bulk of their nutrition. $\endgroup$
    – Jemox
    May 16, 2019 at 13:58
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    $\begingroup$ What about exotic plants that don't use photosynthesis as the main source of energy, but rather heat exchange? If you dig deep underground, you'll get to some volcanic (or just hot) parts. There are already microorganisms like that living on our planet. Why not introduce a fictional (but realistic) plant that functions on the same principle? And then farm it, of course. :) $\endgroup$
    – Vilx-
    May 16, 2019 at 17:47
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    $\begingroup$ You're missing a closing parenthesis at the end of your first paragraph (not enough characters for me to edit and I don't see anything else to improve =] ) $\endgroup$
    – Kat
    May 16, 2019 at 19:11
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    $\begingroup$ Lighting a big fire under the chimney will send warm air up it, drawing air towards the fire from the rest of the cave system. This would help with ventilation a little, assuming there are other air inlets to bring in clean air from the surface. $\endgroup$
    – Robyn
    May 17, 2019 at 2:31

It's totally possible.


  • In some books there is mirror system that channels light from surface to underground halls.
  • It's possible that some mushrooms with luminescence would give enough light in tunnels.
  • Fire would give bright light in mines and forges.
    • Torch is most obvious and cheap source of light. It has more disadvantages than advantages: produce smoke, need to be delivered from surface, vulnerable to wind etc.
    • Candles and oil lamps are more advanced. They light longer, produce less smoke and take less space.
    • Tilley lamp fueled by kerosene produce bright light and protected from wind. It's advanced source of light with regulation (and other many small improvements) so it's my choice.
    • Gas lightnings are good for stationary and centralized system.


  • In most stories dwarves are famous as great craftsman. They sell metals, swords etc and buy food.
  • As Delioth mentioned in comments, some fungi could grow up without sunlight. Fungi could be eaten directly or could be start point for some food chain which would provide meat.
  • In underground river fishing is possible: fish could travel from surface for some reason or somehow grow underground. Most likely it doesn't cover all needs but could provide 10%-40% of food in best case.
    • Hunting for some fantasy creatures is also possible but I suppose can't feed up even big village.
  • With sunlight from mirror system it's possible to grow some plants (but not much due to limited space in caverns)


  • With constant wind like sea breeze it's possible to channel it to mines.
  • Water mill could spin fans big enough to deliver air like in metro.
  • Hot air will go up on its own so you could need just air duct.

I suppose dwarves are creatures that don't live underground without any connection with surface. They definitely trade with others, travel and have realty on surface. Sources from surface could provide most part of everyday goods.

  • $\begingroup$ Fire and torches would create a lot of smoke. $\endgroup$
    – J. Doe
    May 16, 2019 at 12:51
  • $\begingroup$ @J.Doe Yep, it's the most primitive source of light. It usable next to <s>surface</s> source of fresh air only. $\endgroup$
    – ADS
    May 16, 2019 at 13:12
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    $\begingroup$ "Hunting for some fantasy creatures" in the Discworld books, rats are part of the dwarves' diet because apparently they have those in their caves. Makes sense, I guess - if dwarves have a whole city underground, that means they have food storage, which will attract rats. So, rat meat can supplement their other food intake and help curb the vermin population. There are probably other critters that can live in caves that dwarves can eat - bats come to mind. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    May 16, 2019 at 13:32
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    $\begingroup$ How about bat meat? There's not much of it in a bat, but there are plenty of bats in a decent cave. And what meat you can't get from bats, you can buy for batwing leather, which you now have a lot of. $\endgroup$ May 16, 2019 at 13:40
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    $\begingroup$ I'd also suggest adding fungi to your "food" section - there's ecosystems that don't use photosynthesis, it's not too far of a stretch to imagine magma chambers putting enough heat into the surrounding rock to support an ecosystem (in caves that border the magma chamber/flows). $\endgroup$
    – Delioth
    May 16, 2019 at 19:19

If you want your dwarves to be realistic, then, as you correctly point out, they cannot 100% rely on underground.

They might dig mines, extract and process ores (there were mines way before middle Age, they just weren't OSHA compliant...), maybe even use the abandoned mines for shelter, but then they rely on the surface for getting food and other resources.

Nothing too different than some mining cities still existing today: all the inhabitants work in the mine, and the earning from the sold mineral are used to pay for resources.

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    $\begingroup$ Worth noting: they probably got this way gradually. In their early history, they were surface dwellers like everyone else. Mining&smithing became their economic niche w.r.t. the rest of the world. As their mines got deeper, carrying stuff out became more burdensome, until they realized it was more practical to do the smelting&smithing down there and only lift out the finished products. Gradually, more and more of their society migrated underground. And here we are. $\endgroup$
    – dgould
    May 17, 2019 at 21:13

They don't need to

In our world we are used to having access to information about any place on the world. You want to learn something about, say, Eastern Europe? You can read Wikipedia, watch Geography Now on YouTube, you have access to a thousand of news channels, podcasts, books, and newspapers. You can also get on a plane and just go there. (We are of course also used to fake news, but that's another story).

It wasn't always like this. Only 200 years ago news about distant places were second-hand at best. People who migrated rarely came back home to tell the stories, and when they did, they exaggerated. First, because they wanted to say good stories which would make them look good, and second, because when they were in these exotic places, they hardly understood what they were looking at. They focused their attention on things which were different and outstanding and, they ignored similarities, and they misinterpreted quite a lot.

In novels and movies about fantasy worlds, we often look at the world from the point of view of one or a bunch of heroes who are similar to us. They're most often human, and if it's Western fantasy, they come from a region in the fantasy world which is a more-or-less equivalent of the medieval Europe. The heroes start their journey from there and only later see other, more exotic parts of the world.

So what if the hero, and the narrator which follows him or her, are unreliable? They don't even have to lie to us or actually make mistakes. It's enough if, looking through the hero's eyes, we see only a part of the life of people who live in these places. We look at a dwarf and see a sturdy, hairy man with an axe who is a warrior or a miner or at least a goldsmith. We don't see dwarves working in the fields, just as - in fact - we don't often see human peasants in such stories. Heroes are warriors. They buy their food with coins they looted. They don't care where the food is coming from.

In the same time we know for sure that every pre-modern civilization is based on agriculture. No exceptions. There might a merchant city here or there, but they are not civilizations by themselves - they are a part of it. In the same way a small dwarven kingdom built around mining precious metals and smithing weapons is possible, but by no means it represents what all dwarves do everywhere. It's just what our heroes see, and what we see, because we follow their story. It's no more real than Arabs always living on the desert or Mesoamerican people dwelling in Tenochtitlan and sacrificing slaves to the Sun God. They're only stereotypes.

So, if you want to to write a story about a dwarven civilization - yay! Please do. You have a great opportunity to deconstruct all these tropes about beardy miners who chew stones and apparently are all males.


You might want to research actually underground habitations constructed by pre industrial civilizations, such as the underground cities of Cappadocia, Turkey. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derinkuyu_underground_city1

My answer to this question: What food production methods would allow a metropolis like New York to become self sufficient2 has links to other questions and answers relevant to your question.

See my answers to these questions:

Giving Tolkien Architecture a Reality Check: Dwarvish Kingdoms3

How can Dwarves produce honey underground?4

How many people can you feed per square-kilometer of farmland?5


How would fantasy dwarves exist, realistically?

Where there is a will there is a way.

They would engineer their tunnels and caverns to have water and airflow. Farm fish and trade their mining and metalwork for food and wood. Probably best if large sections of their caverns are low natural light rather than pitch dark, with openings for smoke and air/light to get in and out.

Stone age people had extensive underground mines for flint, dug out without the aid of metal tools, so none of this is impossible.


Their residences line the walls of a ravine to the surface

A central feature of the mine is a long, deep ravine that is open to the sky at the top. In fact, this was how the mine was started. Dwarves don't randomly start digging in a mountain, hoping to find ore. They see a deposit on the surface, and start mining it down into the mountain, forming a ravine open to the sky.

The ravine is vertically divided into levels with walkways, connected by stairs. As the ravine deepens, they carve living and storage chambers into the walls of the ravine. Dwarves who aren't actively mining generally spend their time in this residential area.

Ventilation: One the ravine is deep enough, the dwarves start digging horizontal shafts from the ravine, to the side of the mountain. Cool air enters the horizontal shafts; moves by convection to the ravine where it is warmed by sunlight, cooking fires, and lanterns; and rises up the ravine as exhaust. Their is plenty of coal for cooking and ventilation, but burning it is strictly limited to the ravine to prevent asphyxiation.

Light: During the daytime, sunlight enters the ravine from above. There are only a few minutes each day when the angle of the sun directly shines into the ravine; the increase in brightness is a natural signal to the dwarves that it is time to break for the day's great feast. During the rest of the day, ambient light from the sky is sufficient illumination. Mineshafts are carved in straight lines using line-of-sight, and polished metal mirrors reflect sunlight or lamplight from the ravine. Night is a time for rest, and the dwarves retreat to their residences along the ravine, where they use coal lamps for illumination.

Food: There is a small amount of space along the edges of the ravine for cropland, which receives sunlight and rain from the open sky. It is enough to grow root vegetables and a few savory and medicinal herbs. However, their diet must be supplanted (especially for protein) by trapping, insects, underground fishing, and trading with other species.


They could realistically exist the way they existed IRL.

Tolkien's fables didn't come out of nothing - the concept of these dwarves is based somewhat on a rather tragic reality.

Noric Mithril It goes back as far as ancient Rome: They didn't say "Tough as Nails", they said "Tougher than Noric Steel". Noricum was a region and occasional Nation in the eastern Alpine foothills and the bordering plains settled by a primarily agricultural Celtic peoples dating back to 1200 BC. They had considerably advanced metalworking, probably partly due to the initial access to ore: lying right on an exposed part of the Alpine-Himalayan orogenic belt, surface mineral veins were especially abundant and accessible in that region.

Commercial Success Tougher, sharper, more resilient blades were always in great demand, for obvious reasons. As Noricum joined the Roman Empire at around 10 BC, they became a primary weapons outfitter of the Roman Army. The trade bloomed, people specialized, and the mines grew deeper. Locally, populations moved away from the plains and closer to the mountains. Old timey Urbanization.

Curse of the Mountains These urban centers, often directly at the foot of the mountains - as in directly built on the bottom of a mountainface, was consuming a lot of the local water. The water was exceptionally pure - fresh meltwater directly from the icecaps above - and possibly even prized for its purity - started turning some of the locals into dwarves.

Instead of collecting minerals from the ground as it snakes through a river, meltwater is completely, and ironically, completely devoid of minerals. Lacking Iodine, the human body is unable to form thyroxin, a hormone directly responsible for growth. Often feeble-minded, these cretins, as they were called, were consistently short in stature, with thick necks, arms and legs.

These dwarves can be born to healthy parents, and the dwarves, if they figured out how to procreate, could give birth to a healthy child.

It stands to reason that they would be employed in the mines.

So TL:DR; how did they exist? They were supported by "Normal Humans". They lived above ground in mining towns, probably focused on mining, while the healthy population managed the rest as humans normally do.

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    $\begingroup$ In French, "crétin des Alpes" (Alpine cretin) was a popular insult made rather famous by Tintin's Captain Haddock. It specifically reference this disease, though few people know it. (Note that it is less offensive than it appears, as Captain Haddock also uses insults like "waffle iron" or "anthracite", with the humour coming precisely from the nonsense.) $\endgroup$
    – Eth
    May 17, 2019 at 13:49

Dwarves start out as "cavemen". (Note that they didn't live entirely in caves; it's just that artifacts &c in caves are better preserved than ones in the open.) Gradually, living underground becomes a status symbol: high-status dwarves spend most of their time underground doing the smithing & stonework, while low-status dwarves dwell on the surface, growing food and so on. Gradually they discover that they can trade their metal & stone work to humans for food & other above-ground products. (This rather parallels human urbanization: how often do you read of fantasy cities without the necessary agricultural lands to support the population?)

If we take Tolkien as the model, we see that dwarves don't actually spend all their time underground. Biblo's companions go on a long (mostly) aboveground journey from their homes (northwest of the Shire, IIRC) to enlist him, and then to Erebor. There's also mention of parties of travelling/trading dwarves passing through the Shire & Bree; the wealthy in the Shire have dwarf-made items like clocks and the toys given out at Bilbo's birthday party...


I've actually looked into this before, and come up with some answers that aren't 100% scientifically rigorous, but they're close enough to make it plausible.

To address your issues in order:


Tunnels can be dug quite deep with only basic technology. In the quasi-medieval-Europe setting that most of this kind of fantasy takes place in, you've scaffolding, pulleys and treadmills, and wagons - everything you need to haul large quantities of rock out of a mine, using cranes, lift shafts, and rope-drawn minecarts. You can prop the tunnels with wood (which works great; when the first mechanical props came in, some miners preferred the wood because it would crack and creak to warn you when it was overloaded and close to failure).

Medieval mines did exist, and sappers would tunnel beneath enemy castles to break sieges. Depths of a few hundred metres are probably plausible with a concerted effort. If there are natural caves, or your dwarves are digging in stronger rocks like granite (which doesn't require props, because its hardness means it won't collapse if dug properly) then you could get very deep indeed. Don't forget that after a few generations of determined digging, your dwarves will have a level of mining expertise beyond anything that existed in the medieval world.


Your mention of ventilation is a good one, but not insurmountable. For this, we look at termites. A termite colony has a large, wall-like part above ground that is always constructed on a north-south alignment so that the flat side catches the sunlight. This warms the air inside, and as the warm air rises, it creates a pressure differential. The colony makes sure that the tunnels that open to the outside go from ground level to the deepest parts of the burrowsand so, stale air in the nest is pulled up and out, and fresh air is drawn in to replace it.

Your dwarves can replicate this mechanism - all they need is a source of great heat... like a set of enormous forges. Place the forges at the heart of the dwarven city, and keep digging vent shafts from the outermost tunnels (and closing off vent shafts from tunnels that are no longer outermost), and as long as the forge fires are burning, the rising column of hot air will pull fresh air through the mines. Any dwarf will tell you: a burning forge is the heart that keeps a city alive.


So the air is breathable, but it's also full of dust. Over time, as your dwarves differentiate from regular folk, they'll develop things like thicker mucous in their airways that will reduce the health impact of the dust, but in the meantime... why do you think dwarves have such thick beards? A good bushy beard and mustache is nature's dust mask. Just remember to wash your beard out periodically.


Mines used candles for light for centuries, but if your dwarves are spending a lot of time underground and have a knack for metalwork and engineering, chances are they'll come up with a few tricks a little earlier than their real-world analogues.

For a start, if they're mining coal and smelting steel, then they'll be producing coke. From that, they'll have coal tar, and if they have access to peat then they can start to produce naptha, which makes good lamp fuel. If the dwarves find the right metal salts while mining, they could start to produce mantles for these lamps, to make their light brighter and more white.

Of course, in some mines there's a risk of gas explosion when using a naked flame for light, but the key innovation of a Davy lamp is basically just a fine metal mesh, which shouldn't be a problem for a dwarf's metalworking skills. With this, you can safely use a flame lantern in a coal mine, and as a bonus, the colour and size of the flame can be used to judge the content and quality of the air in your mine. No more need for canaries!


Food is something of an issue, and it may be that your dwarves will have to maintain farms on the slopes around their mine entrance. However, there are alternatives.

There are varieties of algae and fungus that can live without sunlight; some of these were discovered in caves and underground rivers, so perhaps your dwarves found them while mining and domesticated them? These are often found around volcanic vents, using the heat as their source of energy, but your dwarves have those forges burning 24/7, so there should be somewhere close to the forges that would sustain some farms to grow algae or mushrooms. For fertiliser, well... you've got hundreds of dwarves living in a mine and it's a few centuries before anyone will invent the flushing toilet, so I'm confident you'll find something. You can supplement this with the soil you dig out from the surface whenever you put in a new vent shaft, because otherwise you risk slowly depleting some of the minerals in it, being a closed system and all.

There are fish that don't particularly need light, either because they live in dark caves anyway, or because they're used to very murky water. You could maintain a few underground lakes stocked with fish as a source of protein. The fish can eat the algae, which is good, because it's probably not very palatable to your dwarves as it is. A simple form of aquaponics might work nicely, using the algae vats to dispose of sewage, and using fish to dispose of excess algae.

Pigs probably don't enjoy living in the dark, but they don't need a great deal of space, don't mind a bit of muck, and will eat basically anything. A solid choice for underground livestock.

Fermentation works quite nicely in dark, warm environments, so your dwarves will almost certainly turn to brewing as a means to purify water. As far back as ancient Engypt and Mesopotamia, there have been beer-like drinks, some of which were quite thick, in some cases resembling a thin porridge; your dwarves could add some sort of grain or mushroom derivatives to the mix to create a strange dwarven ale that provides nourishment as well as hydration. It might be a bit of an acquired taste, but history teaches us that if it has alcohol in it, then people can learn to enjoy it.

Dwarven development

As the years and generations go by, the folk living in the mines will naturally become shorter (to aid moving around in cramped tunnels) and stockier (to better cope with hard labour and heavy lifting). Their night vision may improve, and they'll develop an appreciation for bushy, well-maintained facial hair. They'll enjoy fish, ham, and their own variety of strong, strange-tasting beer. Their cities will be surrounded by mines, and they'll place great importance on keeping the forges burning.

Sounds just like a proper fantasy dwarf to me.

  • $\begingroup$ I think what you're missing from the food section is that there needs to be significant energy input into the system. For most cave animals, this is food that was brought in by a river or airflow. For algae it could be a chemical reaction between the rock and air. In both cases they're very limited. $\endgroup$ May 17, 2019 at 11:09
  • $\begingroup$ @RobinBennett I'm assuming it comes from the heat of the forges, the airflow it creates, and potentially an underground river (or at least some kind of water seepage through the rock, which isn't uncommon). Dwarven settlements might start from known caves with a river or some kind of ecosystem. If all else fails, the dwarves will have to trade with their above-ground neighbours for supplementary food. Given the amount of rock they'll have to excavate to make room for them all, and the need to run the forges 24/7, they should have a sizeable surplus of stone and metal goods to trade. $\endgroup$ May 17, 2019 at 12:18

I think the pillar spam commonly seen in dwarven architecture actually helps when it comes to the large scale excavations the dwarves under take. You'd have your colony start out as a mine and as veins dry up and dwarves dig deeper you use the already hollowed out tunnels (with pillar support since dwarves are mining long term) and refurbish and strengthen the tunnels for buildings and living spaces. How they actually mine they could simply chip away at stone for generations or maybe they could use a acidic substance to help soften stone.

To deal with lightning I propose two things: ventilation shafts that double as sky lights. The sky lights could also function as rain catchers with a intricate system of fans to move air, mirrors depending on the angle of the shaft, and buckets or pipes that lead to cisterns.

Another solution to lighting is coal furnaces/petroleum if the dwarves find a pocket (why not mine gold and black gold?). One other solution is slow burning candles. Maybe dwarves alchemists found a recipe for slow burning, but bright candles. Dwarves would naturally adapt to see better in dim lightning any how.

I've always been confused why fantasy dwarves don't have massive terrace farming on the mountain sides. Dwarves are known for their intricate architecture so why not have the dwarves have a complex farming system on the cliff side. With large amounts of piping connecting the fields and bringing water from the peak all the way to the floor. Inside the mountain as others have answered you have mushrooms, lichen, insects, and under ground fish. Or simply trade for your food.


I'm going to hit your questions in reverse order...

Health-wise, your major problem with living out of significant sunlight is rickets. However your fantasy dwarfs will be no more or less at risk of this than modern humans who spend very little time in direct sunlight. Rickets was a major issue from the start of the industrial revolution, but was largely solved a century ago with vitamin-enriched food. For your dwarfs who presumably lack this, a diet rich in oily fish will fix it. There are cave-dwelling fish, so your dwarfs don't even have to leave their tunnels.

Food-wise, dwarfs don't have to live above ground to farm above ground, any more than fishermen have to live their entire lives at sea. Alpine transhumance involved herders moving their animals up into the hills in spring, but their families still stayed in the valleys. So there can easily be farmers amongst them, but they would still consider their home to be underground.

Light is straightforward. Torches, candles, oil lamps and rushlights are all available. And you're assuming that light and sight are necessary in order for carrying out all these activities. Plenty of blind people provide evidence to the contrary.

And finally, digging big holes in the ground. Never mind medieval mining - digging mineshafts was well established in Cornwall long before the Romans arrived. The Romans managed to get over 100m down. Of course the Romans used slaves, but even the free men before that had no problems tunnelling to follow the ore.

Dust remains a problem for miners, even today. Silicosis is not a happy fun experience. We might presuppose that dwarfs evolved some ability to deal with that though, along with their reduced height. Thicker mucus and stronger cilia in their airways might solve the problem. And as Pratchett has observed, whilst dwarfs may feel most at home in a mine, most of them may not actually be miners, any more than we need to be builders to live in a brick-built house.


It is completely possible

first Many human civilizations build underground, some quite extensively for instance Kaymakli is massive and they started building it in hte 7th century BC. Ventilation is a matter of good design, natural winds and thermal gradients can be used to move air quite effectively, modern mines don't because fans are cheaper. Living underground has several advantages, stable temperatures, better food storage, ect.

Living underground is not the same as farming underground, the above humans farmed above ground. I always imagined dwarves building terraced farms in the mountains like the Inca and keeping a lot of livestock. Built correctly terraced farms would be completely inaccessible to outsiders but fairly productive. livestock are nice because you can just bring them underground with you at night or during attacks that is what the people of Derinkuyu did.

Seeing is very simple, castles had the same problem, they solved it with fire. braziers, torches, lamps, candles, ect.


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