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In a classic medieval fantasy world (e.g. LotR), with elves, human, orcs, dwarves... Why would a population (or a few individuals) belonging to the dwarf race have black skins meanwhile the vast majority of dwarves are white skinned?

In this world, dwarves spend their days digging and drinking beer and they live underground in stone houses. Some of them go out, but they are not usually at ease with the outside world, and outside people often bash them. If some dwarves go out, it is mainly for commercial reasons (sell precious stones, buy food/beer...). Of course some of them can be banished from their people and have to spend the rest of their life outside (or in another cave), and a few go out on quests and adventures, in order to earn money and fame.

I don't want to twist the answer, but since black skin in humans is an evolution made to protect them from UV, it seems hard to me to have underground living people with a black skin. But another explanation than "natural evolution" is completely acceptable.

PS: This world also includes magic, but usually dwarves are not familiar with it and don't like it.

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    $\begingroup$ Is there a reason for them to have white skin (or anything else)? $\endgroup$ – Jezzamon Aug 26 '16 at 11:40
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    $\begingroup$ there is some (unintended i'm sure) implicit racism in this question that i think needs to be pointed out. white is not "the default" skin color. blackness is not an oddity that needs explanation. $\endgroup$ – dbliss Aug 26 '16 at 19:04
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    $\begingroup$ @dbliss I am completely aware that this question might seem racist, it is completely unintended and I apologize, I really made a great effort to make it the most political correct as it is possible, in a view to avoid people to misunderstand it. Sadly, the vast majority (and the most known) of med-fantasy stories never mention black skinned dwarves (and barely more white skinned humans). Still I don't think it is more racist than always talking about extraterrestrials to be green. We are talking about fictional people, even the "human" people is not what, in the real world, we call human. $\endgroup$ – EngelOfChipolata Aug 26 '16 at 20:42
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    $\begingroup$ @dbliss Not really. Among cave-dwelling animals IRL, the norm is to be white or even translucent - black is a rare oddity, found e.g. in one subspecies (P. a. parkelj) of the olm. Look up troglomorphism if you don't believe me. $\endgroup$ – Rand al'Thor Aug 26 '16 at 21:31
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    $\begingroup$ @dbliss this question is no more racist than asking "why a drow would be white skinned". In the given fantasy realm, dwarfs are light-skinned, so yes in that world light skin is the default for dwarfs. $\endgroup$ – user2547 Aug 28 '16 at 8:04

17 Answers 17

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If the caves the dwarves live in are not pitch black, maybe due to natural light or glowing rocks, then animals that lived in the caves when a particular species of dwarf first evolved could have hunted these prehistoric dwarves by sight. The rocks in the caves and mountains could conceivably be black in colour giving the prehistoric dwarves a camouflage advantage if they are black. The black colour is a leftover genetic reminder from that time and appears only in dwarfs from that particular mountain.

Alternatively there is some form of rock that they mined which emits a glow on a wavelength other than visible light. The dwarves evolved special vision to see the glow and had to sacrafice colour vision in the process making black skin the only appropriate colour so that the dwarves can see each other more easily. Alternatively their skin reflects mostly on this wavelength meaning to non-dwarves they appear black but to each other they do not. (Thanks to @Captain Man for this idea.)

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    $\begingroup$ This was my thought as well. In dark caves, black skin would create far superior camouflage from anything else that might hunt them. $\endgroup$ – ThunderGuppy Aug 26 '16 at 13:36
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    $\begingroup$ making black skin the only appropriate colour so that the dwarves can see each other A better way to say this is that "the pigment in their skin reflects mostly only that special wavelength so to non-dwarves they appear dark, but to each other they do not." $\endgroup$ – Captain Man Aug 26 '16 at 15:21
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    $\begingroup$ @ThunderGuppy That's not how it works in real life. Cave-dwelling or troglomorphic creatures tend to be entirely colourless or even translucent: see e.g. random images from Google. $\endgroup$ – Rand al'Thor Aug 26 '16 at 21:33
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    $\begingroup$ @randal'thor That is due to lack of light so coloration is a waster of energy. In this cave there is light thus colour action is worth having in order for camouflage against grey/black rocks. $\endgroup$ – Bellerophon Aug 26 '16 at 21:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Bellerophon Yes, so you'd need caves which are quite dark but not completely dark. $\endgroup$ – Rand al'Thor Aug 26 '16 at 21:36
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Skin colour in humans is, as you say related to protection from the sun, essentially lighter skin = less light for the production of the vitamin D.

If dwarves don't need to produce vitamin D (maybe their food is high in vitamin D or it's just not part of their make-up) then there isn't an evolutionary pressure for skin colour to diverge to take up more light. It would then be a case of suiting your environment to avoid predators (as another answer states) and mating choices. However mating choices can result in sexual dimophism

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    $\begingroup$ I upvote this particular answer, remember blacks coloured skin appeared far far ago. (probably about 1 million years) biology.stackexchange.com/questions/14657/…. So yes, if they do not need more vitamin D why would they start to have a lighter skin. You don't really need to understand why dwarf's skin became darker since their ancestor might already have a darker skin. $\endgroup$ – T.Nel Aug 26 '16 at 12:59
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    $\begingroup$ It's strange how few folks know that light skin is the adaptation to a lower vitamin D, agricultural diet. $\endgroup$ – tjd Aug 26 '16 at 13:00
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    $\begingroup$ @tjd I always heard that light skin was an adaptation to humans moving from the tropics to higher latitudes, where the climate was colder, which meant that they had to start wearing heavier clothing, which covered more of their skin, which meant that they got less exposure to sunlight, which meant they had to let more sunlight into less skin area, which meant less melanin. $\endgroup$ – Doug Warren Aug 26 '16 at 13:22
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    $\begingroup$ @DougWarren That is what they taught 40+ years ago when I was in elementary school. Current consensus points to a drop in dietary vitamin D. $\endgroup$ – tjd Aug 26 '16 at 13:31
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    $\begingroup$ @tjd I can't give a citation, but I have read evolutionary biologists who think that skin, eye, and hair color are driven more by sexual selection than by vitamin D and the sun. While skin color is related to vitamin D uptake, the rapid changing of skin/eye/hair color for entire groups (specifically northern Europeans, to whom blond/red hair, blue/green eyes, and pale skin are almost exclusive) occurred too quickly (within 2000 generations of modern humans arriving in northern Europe) to be driven by anything other than by the same forces that gave peacocks their tail feathers. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Aug 26 '16 at 15:59
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Melanin protects from sunburn -- so it's entirely possible that Dwarves could evolve the same protection, although not from the sun.

As Dwarves are regularly portrayed as metal smiths, it's entirely possible that they would have developed darker skin as a protection against the light and radiation coming from the forge.

It may be that only certain bloodlines (clans?) have developed the protection, and it's not a widespread thing.

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    $\begingroup$ +1. I've gotten a welding tan from extended operation of an oxy rig. The forge emits UV even in real life physics. The hotter you get, the more UV. Makes sense in a world with high-melt metals like mithril and adamantium concentrated in certain mountains, and smithing generationally practiced... $\endgroup$ – newcoder Aug 28 '16 at 8:32
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    $\begingroup$ This would also imply that the dark-skinned bloodlines were historically more prosperous and powerful by virtue of more frequent, intense forge work $\endgroup$ – newcoder Aug 28 '16 at 8:34
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    $\begingroup$ You would need either hundreds of thousands of years without significant change in technology or some extremely nasty effect (but without dwarves adopting protection suits), maybe repeated ethnic purges? $\endgroup$ – Daerdemandt Aug 28 '16 at 11:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Daerdemandt : No, what you need is for it to be linked to something that improves natural selection. If the smiths can work longer hours and that's a prized activity or they become more successful (and thus more wealthy), they would have an advantage when it comes time to select a mate. If there's a dowry system, the improved wealth could lead to earlier mate selection, potentially leading to more children. And as for the hundreds of thousands of years -- it depends on the mutation rate and how closely bred the lines are. (most dog breeds are nowhere near that old) $\endgroup$ – Joe Aug 29 '16 at 13:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Joe You underestimate how random and inefficient natural selection is. π≈2s all across the board. In general, single minor beneficial mutation is unlikely to reach fixation. Dog breeds would only be relevant if someone was deliberately breeding dwarves to produce black ones. If you want a real-life example - ashkenazi $\endgroup$ – Daerdemandt Aug 29 '16 at 20:55
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Here's a few ideas:

Mutation: Maybe dwarfish albinos are black skinned instead of white skinned.

Mythology: On a quest to seek the Source of All Fire, he (or an ancestor) strayed too close to flame, and his skin was burned black for ever after.

Sci-Fi: The dwarves are actually an experiment in genetic engineering by The Ancient Ones, who have long since vanished into the mists of time, leaving only ruins to hint at their presence.

Magic: A wizard did it: "I curse you, that your skin be as black as your heart, so that all may know your villainy on sight!"

Heredity: Your dwarf is actually half-drow, and inherited their skin color.

Handwave: "Why is his skin black?" "Because... look over there!" whoosh

Culture: Once a month, he painstakingly daubs indelible dye over every inch of his body, representing his dedication to the God of the Dark. Or make it a tattoo, so it's permanent.

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  • $\begingroup$ I like how comprehensive this answer is, but it isn't as detailed as some of the others. $\endgroup$ – Anonymous Aug 29 '16 at 13:55
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You can utilize the same evolutionary selection pressure as surface dwellers if you have the dwarves living in an area of radiation emitting minerals. Melanin absorbs a specific wavelength but this does not have to be the case. Perhaps the pigmented granules the dwarves have protect against beta particles (for example, the pigment binds iron or lead to help shield against radiation), which can penetrate the skin. Beta particles travelling though water cause it to glow (cherenkov radiation) so this could be how the dwarves illuminate their underground realm. Numerous minerals emit beta particles (as well as alpha particles, but those can be blocked easily enough).

There is also social selection. Much like previous questions similar to this, if a dark skinned ruler or influential dwarf came to power, they could drive sexual selection towards dark skin. Over time, especially if this preference was hard coded into religious text or political favor, the vast majority of the population could be dark skinned despite there not being any biological pressure to do so.

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Though it does not explain how or why (I'm assuming "cuz magic"), dwarves in the D&D world tend to have darkish skins: quoting from the D&D V edition Player's Handbook:

Dwarven skin ranges from deep brown to a paler hue tinged wilh red, but lhe most common shades are light brown or deep tan, like certain tones of earth. Their hair, worn long but in simple styles, is usually black, gray, or brown, though paler dwarves often have red hair. Male dwarves value their beards highly and groom them carefully.

Same goes with dark elves, which in the Forgotten Realms setting, live underground. Dark skin, in the tones of earth, in the case of the dwarves, could have been developed as a mimesis technique. It's much harder to spot a short brown skinned humanoid when the whole area is the same colour.

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    $\begingroup$ Along with the dark elves underground in the Forgotten Realms there are also dark dwarves - duergar. $\endgroup$ – James Elderfield Aug 26 '16 at 13:14
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You are thinking inside the box: fantasy worlds are not beholden to real world science.

The simplest answer is that dwarves were created from clay by the gods and their broad phenotypical traits were determined by what type of clay was used.

Since evolution does not exist in this fantasy world because the gods did not include it, dwarves will never become albino in response to their subterranean environment.

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  • $\begingroup$ That does not answer the question. $\endgroup$ – JohnWDailey Jan 22 '18 at 3:31
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnWDailey: Really? The question asked "why would dwarves have black skin," so I answered "because God did it." I thought that is a logically valid answer for a fantasy world where people can warp reality by waving their arms and speaking in baby-talk. Why would it not? $\endgroup$ – Anonymous Jan 22 '18 at 13:21
  • $\begingroup$ Because without substance, fantasy is shallow and unbelievable, a problem that has plagued the genre post-Tolkien. $\endgroup$ – JohnWDailey Jan 22 '18 at 18:05
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnWDailey: Would you prefer a more elaborate creation myth where the gods cook people into existence like hamburgers and skin color is related to how burned or under-cooked they are? $\endgroup$ – Anonymous Jan 23 '18 at 19:29
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnWDailey: I have no idea what you mean. Define "substance." If you mean to say that genuinely fantastical elements, like the gods performing feats of genetic engineering and defining the laws of physics, are without substance... then I completely disagree. Fantasy that is founded on real science is not fantasy, but science fiction. The question relates to fantasy, not science fiction. If you mean to that say fantasy is shallow and uninteresting because it is not science fiction, then please say so. $\endgroup$ – Anonymous Jan 26 '18 at 14:30
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OP stated in a comment that one of the guy he played with wanted to be a black dwarf, but most of the dwarves were white. So I'm taking it as an exception amongst dwarves.

So even if you stated that dwarves live in cave, there can still be an exception...

In my last D&D campaign, the main city was in the middle of the desert. There were huge rocks going from deep underground to the surface, full of precious materials ( especially gems ), which attracted a lot of dwarves, and the city was built around this. So most dwarves in the city were pretty dark skinned.

Other people have already given evolutionnary explanation, I'm going through the path of another of my answer: it's artifical ( How can I explain alien skin being different colors? ) It can be self-inflicted, to represent its belonging to a certain tribe/nation. Made like a giant tatoo, or a ritual were the dwarf is burn in a special fire that blacken the skin, or made with a spell that has skin color modification as a side effect (maybe not always black), or a special decoction that has unique side effects on each people that drinks them.

It can also be a virus/bacteria/fongus, or a genetic disorder (just like albinism, but reversed). I prefer the genetic disorder because you would have small patches of black dwarves under the mountains that live together, excluded from the rest, and they would continue to transmit their genetic disorder this way. (just saw that Rigop already stated that in his answer)

You said dwarves didn't like magic, but still. I remember from a D&D manual that black dwarves were the results of magic experimentations by black elves (or maybe it was another race). A curse would be my best guess, because if it's the only black dwarf ever, he is gonna be suspicious.

(4 edits after rereading the question and other answer, I really need to read more carefully ...)

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Melanism is a genetic mutation that change the color of the skin, feather or hair. That's the mutation of the black panther. It doesn't exist on human but with your dwarves you can do whatever you want.

Melanism is genetic so children has also a chance to be black. If you have at a moment for a reason or another a group of black dwarves isolated (for example because of dwarves with pointy white hoods and torches) they will develop a population of exclusively black dwarves (with maybe some white kids randomly)

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Given that this is a magical universe in which the various intelligent species were created by the appropriate god, then the skin color would be part of that creation. In this case, dwarves are usually created by a blacksmithing type god and would be linked to stones. The black dwarves would perhaps have been created using granite and be linked to the black stones at the root of the mountains.

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...but since black skin in humans is an evolution made to protect them from UV...

I think that's your answer: just find some underground UV-emitting source (possibly regionally specific), and you're good to go. Maybe some odd mutation of fungus, or some underground radiation source (e.g., long lost insanely powerful magical artifact), or whatnot.

One specific example might be a specific kind of rare (and radioactive) ore that they use to smelt handwavium. Given enough untold generations of dwarves (so-and-so, son of such-and-such, son of etc.), the dwarves of that region have evolved that way. It's not enough radiation to be truly dangerous ("trust me") to those who wear armor or wield weapons made from it - but it's enough to have changed those who live in that section of the underworld.

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Too long for a comment, so let it be an answer.

@Joe mentioned light radiation coming from the forge.

Well, historical timespan usually wouldn't be long enough for evolutionary changes to kick in, especially in a society. Something that kills majority of specimen without desired trait / does not allow them to reproduce would be needed.

In medieval times, childbirth was really dangerous procedure and giving birth in sterile-ish environment would be a good thing to do. I mean, they would quickly notice that it simply works, no matter how they explain that to themselves.

For example, take a look at black banya. Birch wood contains tar and so does birch smoke, so insides of black banya were covered with soot and tar. It was pretty germ-less space so people would give birth there and it worked (also access to hot water).

What if some group of dwarves for whatever reason tried giving birth near the forge? If they have some cult of those then forge would be cleanest place around and UV radiation and high temperature would wipe out all germs on a regular basis. Giving birth there would give a higher survival rates than, say, in bedroom. Also, having clan of proud "forgeborn" dwarves is pure awesome!

Minor problem though: subjecting newborns to intense UV may not be a great idea because cancer. If dwarves also have higher regeneration rates than humans, cancer would be even more of a problem. And it won't kick in immediately so they'll notice how their custom is actually killing them.

Maybe simply make them sterile, that would work too. You only need to sterilise one gender. Immune system actually finds and kills majority of cancerous cells, and kids' immune systems are really powerful. If some cells crucial to reproduction are the most suspectible to cancer and are close to skin then irrepairable damage would be done, but specimen may survive and not even notice that something is wrong. Of course, you will need higher levels of UV than dwarves were naturally accustomised to.

Only dwarves that woudld pass on their genes would be really thick-skinned ones - against UV, too. Having high melanin in your skin would be an obvious way to go - and very likely, too (since that's the thing that evolution "cares" about). A ten generations or so of purge like this and there would be very, very little traces of non-black dwarven blood among this group.

Since digging a tunnel to a neighbouring mountain is way slower and harder than going by surface, dwarves would travel less than surface-dwellers. Thus, their rates of cultural exchange would be even slower. Some clans can practice forgebirth and other clans - some alternatives, like the thing with banyas.

You will have both black and white dwarves that way, perfectly genetiaclly compatible.

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  • $\begingroup$ Historical timespan might be different in a fantasy world. Maybe they've been doing this for literally eternity. But, even in the real world, it doesn't have to be that long, even absent creating special circumstances — 100 or 200 generations may do. $\endgroup$ – mattdm Aug 28 '16 at 17:36
  • $\begingroup$ @mattdm Having significantly different pace of development would require some explanation though. Like, imagine a world that is stuck with 1970's technoligy for a century or two without further advances. \ I suppose unevolving a trait that was far from reaching fixation is noticeably different from evolving a trait from scratch. You'd have to make dwarves initially black, then make them white, but then make some of them black again, in which case you could probably simply preserve original black population - and you'd have to jump through the same hoops as above to make them white. $\endgroup$ – Daerdemandt Aug 28 '16 at 19:42
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Genes for the black skin may be passed down from half dwarves - half black humans. The way they could stay strong enough in the natural selection to have significant portion of the dwarvish population black after those genes would be for one time brought to otherwise just dwarvish population, even when it would be biologically not benefitial to have black skin underground, it could be taken as a sign of nobility among the dwarves. You'd need to create a story behind why is that, but there has been a lot of different, sometimes even quite ridiculous traits which were taken as a sign of nobility in our history.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Jan 21 '18 at 18:23
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Do the dark skinned dwarves have to be purely dwarves? perhaps they are half breeds, part human part dwarf.

maybe a dwarf mated with a dark skinned human with dwarfism (or not, love doesn't discriminate) and this lead to a genetic line containing the dark skinned trait.

often dark skinned individuals who don't venture outside tend to be lighter than others although it doesn't take long in the sun to develop darker.

It's why you'll see them hiding from the sun, by staying in the shade, using tons of sunscreen or becoming nocturnal, to be more fair skinned (or because skin cancer, nobody wants cancer)

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  • $\begingroup$ Since it has to be used in a RPG, it has to be a defined race, to get all the characteristics of the character. A crossbreed could be hard to play since it is not in the rules. $\endgroup$ – EngelOfChipolata Aug 26 '16 at 14:00
  • $\begingroup$ @EngelOfChipolata actually half breeds are accounted for - reference. but I see what you are getting at $\endgroup$ – Sarfaraaz Aug 30 '16 at 11:04
  • $\begingroup$ It is not for D&D, sorry. But I really don't want the RPG side to influence answers. $\endgroup$ – EngelOfChipolata Aug 30 '16 at 11:09
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They don't have black skin but have impregnated coal dust. Yorkshire coal miners are notorious for looking like black men despite being white. Just have even more fine powders and everyone will never get that out of their skin. Babies will get coal baths to fit in with their adults.

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Is it permissible to point out that actual dwarves in the real world, such as Kalahari San "Bushmen" and Congolese Pygmies, actually are black?

If the question is "Is there an evolutionary reason why a subterranean race of troglodytes might have a high level of melatonin?", which is a good question, as most cave-dwelling species lose all coloring, we could speculate that perhaps melatonin or another skin-darkening agent of some kind could provide some protection from certain kinds of radioactivity from ores that they are mining.

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  • $\begingroup$ It's "permissible", but a statement calling these people "actual dwarves" needs some definition the terms of "actual" and "dwarves" to make sense — particularly in terms of a "classic medieval fantasy world (e.g. LotR)" $\endgroup$ – mattdm Aug 28 '16 at 17:40
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Most underwater creatures, and creatures living in dark places are white, just because they need no pigments. So they are likely to be white, but white is not a necessary condition. Cells walls are made by fat, and fat has a very bright color, so that's why most creatures have white skin if there are no things that gives it a darker color. Skin is made of cells, and cells are made of fat.

  • Maybe your dwarves have a very short and dark fur: a real example of that are bats. Fur helps a lot to stabilize body temperature.
  • Maybe your dwarves have a very dark blood: living in deep mines requires a blood able to carry more oxygen so it could actually be blue like blood of octopus (note that the blue is given by copper not by oxygen): infact many deep sea creatures have a color similiar to black.
  • Maybe the dwarves skin evolved to catalyze metals in order to remove them from body making dwarves effectively sweat dust and metal particles. Living in mines is highly deadly to humans because of dust which is poisonous to body. A metal skin would also help beacause certain metals just burn when they touch flammable gases.
  • Simple evolution, since in the dark most creatures are white, predators may just hunt white creatures, and dwarves are not hunted by predators (also a plausible reason to not have human in caves).

Dwarf's dictum:

when a dwarf glow have everyone away flown

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