So, I have a setting where there are three different races: Elves, Humans, and Dwarves.

Humans are the same as normal humans, Elves are weaker and shorter, and have pointy ears.

Finally, Dwarves are more traditional, think early Inuit society, and mostly lack metallurgy.
They are anatomically like a mix between Neanderthals and modern humans.

How would such differences be treated in a pre-gunpowder society?

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I would imagine there's probably a politer way to illustrate "fairly primitive" :) $\endgroup$
    – Qami
    Oct 17, 2019 at 20:49
  • $\begingroup$ sorry about that $\endgroup$
    – user69880
    Oct 17, 2019 at 22:03
  • $\begingroup$ "Elves are weaker and shorter" - more like Santa's elves? $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Oct 17, 2019 at 22:23
  • $\begingroup$ No, like wood elves, but not completely overpowered $\endgroup$
    – user69880
    Oct 17, 2019 at 22:46
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ How would they be treated...in terms of? Culturally? How would they simply live? I think this is far too broad to answer. Not to mention that cultural treatment will be very dependent on the culture. Even in the real world, some are more warlike and will try to conquer and kill the enemies. Other will seek a more homogenous relationship. Third might simply trade and not really bother with whom. And many will even do a mix of these. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Oct 18, 2019 at 8:55

5 Answers 5


One example: Egypt.

The oracle of Amon said that all those who drink the waters of the Nile are egyptians. That could mean 2 things: Those who live by the nile were egyptians or those that learned the egyptian culture (the Nile) were egyptians. The egyptians didnt care much for race or skin color, they cared if the rulers followed the Maat and the Maat says nothing about race. That's why when the nubians ruled Egypt there was no problem.

Some people may raise the issue of the hebrew slavery. There are many reasons, many evidences, to belive that it never happened.

So Egypt had no racism as we understand today and didn't really cared about racial differences.

Adapting to your situation: What matters is culture and religion. If the races follow the religion/culture, they are tolerated. If they don't they are driven away.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ If the Egyptians did keep Hebrews as slaves, it was not because of racial differences, but because Egypt had better armies than the Hebrews did. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Oct 18, 2019 at 3:31
  • $\begingroup$ You need to understand that having different cultures within the same species is very different from being a completely different species. Just look at modern depictions of dwarfism. Prejudice will always exist in some form and saying there could be a world or culture without it is unrealistic. $\endgroup$
    – overlord
    Oct 18, 2019 at 13:33
  • $\begingroup$ The hebrew slavery was largely based on religion rather than race. It is thought that the monotheistic jewish religion descended from Pharaoh Akenhaten, and the early hebrews were his priests who fled Egypt when the polytheists came to power again. $\endgroup$
    – Galaxy
    Oct 24, 2020 at 20:04

It entirely depends on the particular culture. For instance, Rome didn't really have racism as we think of it today. Instead, there were Romans and barbarians (that is, everyone else :-)). But a barbarian could be captured as a slave, become a freedman, and his children could become Roman citizens. E.g. the Roman poet Horace: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horace

  • $\begingroup$ +1 for the well-known observation that the classical world did not have a concept of human race directly comparable to what we have in the modern world. Nitpick: nobody ever considered the Greeks to be barbarians. At the height of Roman power, the division was four-ways: Romans, Greeks, our barbarians, and foreign barbarians. And between foreign barbarians there were subtle distinctions between civilized foreign barbarians, e.g., Persians, and truly barbarian barbarians... But the main point stands that those distinctions had nothing to with anything we would call "race". $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Oct 18, 2019 at 15:06
  • $\begingroup$ Not only their children, but the manumitted slaves themselves became citizens. The children of a freedman or a freedwoman were counted as free-born, ingenui, and could accede to the highest honors. (And not only Horace, but also Terentius (P. Terentius Afer, the African) and Josephus Flavius were freedmen.) Roman bureaucracy was full of freedmen, up to the highest levels. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Oct 18, 2019 at 15:15
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP: I agree with your points. Just didn't want to write a long, involved answer that would force me to look up things I think I know, but can't support off the top of my head :-) Then there's the flip side of racism-equivalent societal divisions that outsiders simply can't perceive, e.g. the Irish Catholic-Protestant divisions (especially when so many actively reject religion), Yugoslavs, &c. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Oct 19, 2019 at 2:29
  • $\begingroup$ It's a bit hard to have racism, when people of other races were too rare to have much opinion about them. Nevertheless, as far as it gets Greeks were trying - considered "Asians" - Persia and surroundings as civilised but spineless people who are easy to subjugate by any tyrant, while Europeans were generally free people, hard to subjugate and even harder to civilise. On top of that tomb paintings in Ancient Egypt clearly show that Egyptians were even overemphasising phenotypical ethnic differences to make clear whether they were paint Egyptian, Nubian, Greek or Persian. $\endgroup$
    – Shadow1024
    Oct 19, 2019 at 7:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Shadow1024: You have no idea what you are talking about... There was simply no concept of "Europeans" and "Asians". As in, not at all. The very idea that the Greeks (who lived both in Europe and in Asia, modern Greece not being coterminous with the territories inhabited by Greek speaking people in the Antiquity) would even consider that they were somehow "European" and thus in some nebulous way related to the Thracians and Gauls is bizarre. (And about Egyptian conventions, you may want to notice that men and women are represented with different colors. Conventions are conventional.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Oct 19, 2019 at 12:04

Tons of prejudice.

Even on modern Earth, with only one species of humans of different ethnicities, prejudice is everywhere.

Your pre-modern civilization, with different races, would be even worse. I don't think there would be a lot of open-mindedness among different cultures.

Even among those of the same race, there would be prejudice. For example, elves from the woodlands might be referred to as "dirty elves" by the elves that might live in a city with stone walls and large structures. They would think of themselves as "high-class" and might have low tolerance for outside cultures.

> To use your own example (before the edit), dwarves would be called "primitive" by other races like the humans and elves.

But it's your story, so you can always make exceptions!


Looking into nearly any tribe for that matter it's the strong ingroup mentalities that tribes who don't have much contact with outsiders all possess in various countries.

Basically they have their in group preferences sometimes its village to village other times its region to region it dectates who they can talk to or must avoid both internally and externally.

Your Elves for instance like other Elves but if you have albino elves or tree skinned elves? That's a new class does the majority of elves think tree ones will make good ingrediants for potions so they hunt them down to kill them to craft things? Cuz in Africa they have so many tribes who do just this for so many small things like having black skin and blue eyes combo or being an albino this is done because of myths and incorrect facts surrounding their targets the more remote the tribe the better chance this can pop up. But notice this is remote if you've got more face time now between races you might want the myth angle.

Myths populate over time so your dwarves might be thought of as spawning from reptiles so people say keep this or that away from them or keep hold of infants less they eat them.

Humans can have myths or past war grudges between them all but they could be thought of as the baby eaters after all they already eat animal eggs whats to stop them from eating your children? During WW2 the Japanese thought the Americans ate babies because we had babies faces upon our cans for them and the Japanese thought the food inside where the smiling tots on the cover! This made them kill off many infants rather then see them fall into the hands of the child eaters!

You could go wild with this but keep in mind what is best for your story. Some flavor is fine but you need to reveal info on the characters, important events/reveals to come, or move the plot forward due to this racism or speciesism.

Dragon Age and Mass Effect have this more for flavor in the Witcher 2 you get it directed at you for the player is the outlier but it doesn't stop you from doing quests. In Kingdom Come Deliverance you experience mild classism so you could check out all these games if just doing more research online or watching movies isn't helpful. Because how humans treat and have treated one another is really going to parallel the treatment forms speciesism will take.


TLDR: best case scenario: de facto caste system; more likely: population replacement

De facto caste system

Already in past it was noticed that some ethnic groups seems to excel at particular tasks. For example Normans (Vikings) were much taller, stronger and fierce enough to be main source of mercenaries for centuries, hired even by not so close Byzantium. They managed to conquer for themselves multiple lands, from less known - Sicily or Kiev Rus. Their era ended because they simply integrated in to local population.

Humans as they are already diverse enough to have some groups over represented in specific jobs. For example: people who evolved lactose tolerance, have clearly had an edge in being shepherds. If we assume that there are some genetic differences in average IQ between ethnic groups, then we could reasonably explain why ex. Askenazi Jews are highly over represented among Noble prize winners.

Nevertheless, here we have people that normally mix, so if whatever alleles are highly beneficial they would spread so ethnic groups living together would mix. Assuming that's not workable with different species, you end up with peoples with absolutely diverse predispositions, that would naturally pick the best jobs for them, which would lead to job separation. Moreover, as in premodern society people team up in clans, then at best they end up separate but equal, or more likely create some kind of caste system. As caste system worked in stable way in India for millenia, I'd say that's the way to go. The only problem that I see even peaceful situation is whether all species reproduce in roughly the same speed, otherwise in long run, some would be outbread.

Population replacement

In recent years we started to get genetic studies of our distant past. Population replacement were highly common, even though we are one specie. In Europe, first neolithic hunter gatherers were partially replaced by Anatolian farmers. Later, in the most brutal way possible (in most cases, except maybe nowadays Spain, genetic data show that not even women were spared) those were mostly replaced by Yamnaya. Similar process were happening already in quite recent times with Bantu expansion in Africa, which doomed most of Pygmy and Khoisan.

If we talk about more distant past - all what's left out Neanderthals and Denisovians is some tiny genetic admixture in out-of Africa homo sapiens. So I see the pattern, and it's not optimistic one.

As side note - please let me ruin story that ancient and premodern people were not racist in modern meaning of this term. Sort of true, just let me remind the fine print

  • in Ancient Greece and Rome there was indeed equal opportunity... slavery. People, regardless of their race could be captured in war, sold as slaves by their parents (this part for sure in Ancient Rome) or auctioned to slavery to pay off their debts.
  • As far as their knowledge allowed Greeks were trying to pioneer racism - considered "Asians" (Persia and surroundings) as civilised but spineless people who are easy to subjugate by any tyrant, while Europeans were fierce free people, hard to subjugate and even harder to civilise (Presumably I'm supposed to find this highly offensive :D ), while only Greeks were able to both be good warriors and good at creating civilisation.

Those who live in a cold climate and in Europe are full of spirit, but wanting in intelligence and skill; and therefore they retain comparative freedom, but have no political organization, and are incapable of ruling over others. Whereas the natives of Asia are intelligent and inventive, but they are wanting in spirit, and therefore they are always in a state of subjection and slavery. But the Hellenic race, which is situated between them, is likewise intermediate in character, being high-spirited and also intelligent.

Politics by Aristitotle, book VII, Part VII

  • Tomb paintings in Ancient Egypt clearly show that Egyptians not only noticed, but even were even overemphasising phenotypical ethnic differences while painting Egyptian, Greek, Nubian and Persian

enter image description here

  • Muslims were slave raiding both Africa and Europe. I'm not sure whether it counts as racism, but white slaves had higher market price.

  • Already people, who were by all modern standards the same ethnic group, were willing to create convoluted stories to claim otherwise. Examples: Rome was claimed to be established by some Troy refugees. Later, in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth nobility was claiming not being related in any way to peasants, but deriving its origin from steppe Sarmatians.

  • In one of early contacts between Europeans and Japanese, Europeans had hired a Chinese scholar as translator. According to Japanese recordings he described Europeans as not much better than beasts, as they were absolutely unaware of even basic Confucianism. (to be fair: this part was culture based)

  • Racism, as understood nowadays, indeed came later, when superstition and ignorance were replaced by actual knowledge gathered in age of geographic discoveries and age of... reason. Then indeed humans were classified in to races that roughly match nowadays studies concerning genetic clustering.

  • $\begingroup$ how does the illustration show that the Egyptians were "overemphasising phenotypical ethnic differences", when virtually all the differences I can see, other than skin color, are cultural things like clothing & hair/beard styles? Further, how does noticing those differences imply any sort of racism? E.g. I notice obvious differences between say Border Collies, German Shepherds, & Rottweilers without being the least little bit "racist" about it. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Oct 20, 2019 at 3:35
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf Skin color difference is excessive by any biological standard, so I'd consider "overemphasise" as right term. // If you have to choose a puppy for tiny kids, would you generally prefer Labrador Retriever or Bull Terrier? Yes, I know it's not "racism" towards particular dog breeds, it's merely "race realism". :D $\endgroup$
    – Shadow1024
    Oct 20, 2019 at 7:08
  • $\begingroup$ WRT the skin color differences, Egyptian paintings are highly stylized, rather than realistic. Even if the Egyptians wanted to do a "protorealistic" depiction of skin tones, did they have a range of pigments that would allow them to do so? And if they did, would those pigments all have remained stable over several thousand years? $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Oct 20, 2019 at 16:51
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf Range of available pigments... This question was easy - on this picture, for pants of Anubis, they used much more suitable color for Mediterranean white skin. Actual skin tone difference between Greeks and Egyptian is small, and it got amplified. They had contact with Nubians, while their skin color was even a bit of for Nilotes. So, yes, the paintings are highly stylised, but in a way that clearly amplifies ethnic differences. $\endgroup$
    – Shadow1024
    Oct 20, 2019 at 17:31

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