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The tomte is a creature from scandinavian mythology. It's pretty small, humanoid and has clothes and a beard. They live on farms and in houses where they help out with farmwork and other labour, though they stay out of sight. They don't require much except being respected and having food (like porridge) offered to them once in a while. Their abilities include having the strength of several grown men despite their small size and being good at taking care of animals. If offended somehow, their behaviour switches around to vengeance and spite. They can destroy the crops, make the animals sick, assault the offender or just cause general mayhem. There is usually only one tomte per farm, they don't live together.

Is there a realistic way this creature could evolve? Could they have existed on earth with our current understanding of physics and biology and, if not, how close could we get?

Anatomically Correct Series

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  • $\begingroup$ I think your closest thing on earth to this are humans with en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dwarfism $\endgroup$ – Skye Aug 11 '16 at 13:47
  • $\begingroup$ How is your description not “small people”? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Aug 11 '16 at 15:24
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz "Their abilities include having the strength of several grown men despite their small size" $\endgroup$ – ApproachingDarknessFish Aug 11 '16 at 15:36
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    $\begingroup$ Sounds like a shy, intelligent chimpanzee. $\endgroup$ – ckersch Aug 11 '16 at 15:50
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    $\begingroup$ I think the major point here is not the physiology, but the psychology. Why would a species or culture be driven to assist another species but not want to be seen by them? $\endgroup$ – IndigoFenix Oct 13 '16 at 5:51
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Sounds like a chimpanzee.

small, humanoid

Obviously, that's what they are.

clothes

Anything can wear clothes. The hosts expect it of them and train them as such. Or, they may need warmth in the climate same as the humans.

and a beard.

Ok, they don't shave. Again, nothing odd here except for style choices.

They live on farms and in houses where they help out with farmwork and other labour, though they stay out of sight. They don't require much except being respected and having food (like porridge) offered to them once in a while.

That describes any smart domesticated or socialized animal. You could be talking about your dog here, or the barn cats.

Their abilities include having the strength of several grown men

This in particular makes me think of nonhuman apes. A chimp has enormous strength relative to us.

If offended somehow, their behaviour switches around to vengeance and spite.

Nothing novel here. Non-human intelligence like a farm animal or pet does that.

despite their small size and being good at taking care of animals.

They learn the chores and can perform them. Dogs learn their roles but it sounds like you mean general farm hands which require hands. Have you heard heard about the baboon who got a job as a railroad switch operator?

Most of what you describe is not special. What is specific sounds like it could be a real-world ape. More interesting to the story would be to make them a homonid that did not go extinct but took up with the modern humans when they started agriculture.

Nothing special is needed to explain their form and abilities. All that is normal for a homonid and for most of their existance there have in fact been multiple hominin species extant at the same time.


So, consider the story of wolves and modern humans and contrast with the case of neandertals. Suppose that a species of hominin smaller than moderns were hunter-gatherers. Accept the general idea that moderns traded muscle strength for finesse: being able to throw things accuratly became selected for and we lost the raw strength of our relatives. Just as some wolves decided to throw their lot in with the modern humans, these hominins did something similar. They contributed their greater strength and efficency (does chores for less food than a grown modern human) and got the benifits of sharing agriculture, clothing, expansion into new areas, etc.

Just as dogs evolved breeds based on their roles, these tomte evolved to fit their role, especially if the modern humans influence their breeding.

So they have the specific traits they were adapted for:

They have great raw strength. They can lift and carry, but can't throw worth anything. They can’t thread a needle or make precision tools.

They are smart enough to do their work, but have a small brain and need half the calories of a modern human at rest. The brain uses a lot of power. That along with smaller overall size saves energy.

Living with us and eating the same food, they also lost the huge chewing muscles and long gut, and rely on cooking of cultivated food. But like dogs they eat what we throw away. They scavenge most of their diet and consume byproducts generated as part of their work so we don’t generally notice that. But they need some dietary suppliments such as cooked grains and some fruit. So, the farmer prepares them porridge, sharing his own breakfast, but they eat on their own throughout the day.

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There are some real-world examples we can point to that indicate the possibility of a realistic small humanoid. Since we don't need anything exotic like antlers, carapaces, or magic, this should be simple.

The shortest human on record was a mere 54.64 cm (21.51 in) tall. I'm not sure how that compares to anyone's image of a tomte, but I suspect we want to go smaller.

The smallest primate of all is the mouse lemur. Its body is only 6 to 12 cm (2.25 to 4.75 in); including the tail, up to 24 cm (9.5 in). I think this might actually be too small. But here we have a nocturnal creature with fully prehensile appendages. Just a few evolutionary advances in intelligence and it would make a nice farm helper.

Slightly better, the smallest "monkey" is the pygmy marmoset. They are just a centimeter or two larger than the mouse lemur, but have a more human-like overall anatomy.

I think some appropriate mix of an existing small primate and the right accidents of evolution could easily have produced the creature we want at least in terms of size, intelligence, and personality. The only problem is the strength. Here, I think we come up against an improbability due to an oft quoted rule here: the square-cube law. As the creature gets smaller, it will get stronger as a proportion of it own size but will be necessarily weaker overall. A marmoset stronger than a full-grown human would require bones denser than lead.

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That strong but tiny means your tomte is dense. There's no riding on the back of a goose for them, their weight would crush it.

No females? I saw one picture of a lady version on the info link you provided, but all of the descriptions mention a little bearded old man. This detail, if they have females or not, will contribute to their anatomy.

They sound like solitary animals. We have a lot of animals which are not together, are highly territorial and give each other lots of space. Until it comes to breeding. I would assume that these are all male or at least look it, despite the one picture on the wiki article with a doll that had a lady version. However, there could be a female version which is mobile and doesn't serve the farm, just wanders, visiting the men when no one is looking and raising children until they are ready to take over a farm or wander. If they are all male or don't actually have a sex, then you have a bit of a problem. Because right now, anything that advanced uses sexual reproduction on this planet. Still, it's worth looking into asexual reproduction as a method of making more. They may have a way of separating themselves, and then as soon as they do, the "child" searches for appropriate territory to take over.

This is all pretty alien for higher forms of life.

The other strange thing is that they seem specifically adapted for farm life. I would say that there has to be a "wild version" of them, who does the same thing, but in the forest, as gnomes traditionally do. These don't get angry and ruin things, because no one owns it. When they do get angry at the farmer and ruin things, the effect is to make things less profitable, and run them off the land because they believe they aren't good stewards of it. Once the farmer is broke and gone, they start again...the wild ones don't have the farmer problem. The farm ones adapted their nature stewardship in light of the inconvenience of farmers. I just think this is an evolutionary thing that had to happen. Because there haven't always been farms.

Why take care of the land? Why follow certain rules? How does this tie in with biology and how does it get them what they need? There are other animals who take up a stewardship--birds. Their reasoning is a mate. Conditions have to exactly correct for them to get a lady. So they work hard, decorating sometimes a large area, rearranging branches, that kind of thing, to show the lady that they are worth it. This could be why you never see any ladies. The guys stay in place, showing that they are worthy and fit to breed by taking care of the surrounding land, hoping that the conditions are exactly right to catch a lady. They get angry when conditions aren't right because it might ruin their chances.

Even if this isn't the reason, there has to be a bio-reason for this regimented behavior, an advantage, an edge that helps them as a creature and perpetuates them as a creature.

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  • $\begingroup$ Well, they don't have to be male just because they have beards - it could be a species-wide trait that just makes them look male to us. $\endgroup$ – Grollo Aug 12 '16 at 0:57
  • $\begingroup$ They don't have to be, but they are specifically mentioned as male in the link. I went with the idea of assuming that all the ones we see are males and fit it in with known species. Nobody is addressing the one gender problem or how they make more of their kind. This treatment takes care of that AND explains some of their behavior from an evolutionary standpoint. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Aug 12 '16 at 2:32

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