In order for different humanoid races (humans, elves, orcs, dwarves..) to evolve, they need to be separated for a long time, in different environments. However, if all races are supposed to be sentient, their common ancestor must have been sentient. If we take this as the point where humans have become behaviorally modern, that common ancestor would develop into a modern society in about 50,000 years. However, that does seem a somewhat short time-scale to allow for different evolutionary paths, considering anatomically modern humans are about 200,000 years old.

Somehow, development of civilization would have to be suspended for about 150,000 years to allow for additional evolution. The most logical target would be agriculture, which arose about 10,000 years ago, which suggests that agriculture takes a while to figure out, but once it's there, civilization will develop quickly.

Although development of agriculture is slow, it's somewhat inevitable, as even in Aboriginal Australia some very early forms where practiced before the Europeans arrived. Locking every race out of suitable areas would seem futile.

A thought I had was to use a volcanic or impact winter, where conditions would simply be too harsh to allow for effective agriculture. But what I could find of their time-scales, they seemed too short.

So how could cognitively modern humanoids be delayed in agriculture, and civilization after that, to give them enough time to evolve into different races?

[edit] I know of the question Multiple humanoid evolution. This question is about timescales, since it generally takes longer for a species to evolve than to develop civilization after attaining behavioral modernity.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Related, possible duplicate: How would multi-race.... $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Jan 19 '17 at 20:08
  • $\begingroup$ I've read that one, this question is a bit of an extension about timescales, since developing civilization is faster than evolution. I'll edit my post to make that clear. $\endgroup$ – Arcturus24 Jan 19 '17 at 20:42
  • $\begingroup$ I take issue with several assumptions here. 1) If all races are supposed to be sentient, their common ancestor must have been sentient. An incorrect assumption; convergent evolution could also lead to sentience later; it's just less likely. 2) 50,000 years isn't enough for speciation. First of all, speciation is poorly defined, but even so, even in species with long generations, speciation can occur - especially when population bottlenecks come into play. Furthermore, it is possible that some or all of the races were bred by another, older race - domestic speciation can be very fast. $\endgroup$ – Adam Wykes Jan 20 '17 at 4:59
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ 1) The problem was indeed mostly that half a dozen races would be unlikely to develop sentience in such a short span, that when they met again, none would be overly more developed than the other. Neanderthals might have developed sentience on their own, but they were overwhelmed by the slightly more developed Sapiens. 2) That is indeed a good point. $\endgroup$ – Arcturus24 Jan 20 '17 at 12:54

We've observed agricultural delay in real life.

According to our friends at History SE, agricultural ineffiency was enough to set the New World (Americas) way behind the Old World (Eurasia, Africa) technologically. By copying the factors that slowed farming down in real life, and by making them more severe, you can semi-realistically diverge the populations.

The info below is from the link I provided above. I do not claim it as my own; this is just paraphrased research fitted for the topic.

  • Make the continents vertical. Cultivated plants and animals could spread easily across Europe and Asia, according the above link, because the latitude is similar throughout, causing fairly similar temperatures. By creating a beachball-like world, with longitudinal oceans and continents, you will make it significantly harder to spread farming techniques and crops.
  • Make the ecosystem harsh. Farmers in the Old World were fortunate enough to have fairly adaptable plants and animals - easy to domesticate and breed - while those in the New World had a much more difficult task at hand. Make a more hostile environment on the populated continents, in which it simply takes more effort and time to perfect farming practices. Perhaps the introduction of magic, dragons, etc. pressures animals to be ferocious in response - or good at evading predators - so it's not easy to work with other species.
  • Separate individual civilizations. Aside from environmental factors, you can design the world so that it's hard to spread knowledge. Consider fjords (which aren't great for agriculture, so would slow it down further) that make travel a burden, or even dangerous - or insurmountable mountain ranges that must be circumnavigated, which takes three years, etc. If it's hard to share knowledge, people will not advance as quickly.
    • Note: don't make it so hard to travel that groups evolve separately. You can create an analogy of "race" - populations with different skin color, eye color, etc - but don't make it so hard that new species develop.

In addition to the ideas provided on the link above, you could also consider

  • Infertility. Using islands or mountains as natural barriers will also influence the climate conditions, making it much more difficult to grow food until you determine exactly how.
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ +1 Always nice to see that the answer you were going to write is already there. For more information, read Guns, Germs and Steel, mentioned in the accepted answer for the linked question. $\endgroup$ – Peter Jan 19 '17 at 22:28
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ I love fantasy settings because the answers always come back to dragons. "We have a problem." "Do dragons solve our problem?" "Yes." "Add more dragons." Dragons are to fantasy worlds what bacon is to breakfast. $\endgroup$ – corsiKa Jan 20 '17 at 3:47

Define sentient becasue you don't need to delay agriculture to get several equally intelligent humanoids. It has already happened in the past.

Humanoids have been using fire for over a million years, stone tools for much longer. Thats plenty of time to get a diversity of intelligent hominids. There were at least four distinct subspecies that gave rise to modern humans, not to mention other hominids around that did not directly lead to us, like florensis.

Homo sapiens sapiens

Homo sapiens neanderthalis

Homo sapiens altai

Homo sapiens unnamed (no bones just genetic evidence)

All of which are believed to have been equally intelligent and had similar levels of technology including clothing and cooked their food. They just spread and eventually interbed until they were no longer distinct.

you don't have to delay agriculture just make it a little harder for each subspecies to spread and/or interbreed. You can do this by making the continents a bit more isolated, or make the climate more stable so they become a bit more environmentally specialized.

Perhaps Neanderthal moved into mountains and tundra and became dwarves, Or denisovans were adapted for a desert climate and became orcs. Maybe Elves are adapted for the deep jungle.

I remember a cladogram I made for 4 common races. Dwarves rarely interbred becasue they were the first to split off and thus physically the most different, orcs, humans, and elves were closely related with orcs and elves being sister taxa (becasue of the ears). The only reason elves and orcs did not interbreed more often was due entirely to differences in desirable characteristics. Orcs and elves just had very different ideals of attractiveness in males and females, they just looked ugly to each other.


consider a predictory factor

So if your not going with the usual 'we were each created separately and are going for an evolutionary standpoint, try using different factions and they're response to superior predators to handle this, for instance:

  1. One faction decides to go into hiding deep beneath the earth, and a special mineral or their water or what-have-you begins effecting their lifespan, while centuries in the dark and in small caves effects their height and eyesight. Dwarves check.

  2. One faction decides to deep into the untamed wilderness, (could probably develop some sort of legend where they find the tree of life or something for their longevity.) and over the centuries of immortality they became masters of the woods and it's secrets. Elves check.

  3. humans themselves could just be the stubborn faction that refused to leave where ever this super-predator hunted, and thus they never really developed at all. humans check.

  4. orcs could be similar to dwarves if you like, some of them practiced dark magic that went horribly wrong and they became mutilated monsters. This would make them young compared to dwarves civilizational development and that's even if you have a magic system. Orcs check.

So that's them all evolving from common ancestors, but really just accepting that each species was created at a different time and (at the start) very far away could work just as well. In many books I've read the dwarves minded their business deep in the mountains for quite some time, while the elves traveled to the current continent and already were somewhat advanced, this lets you sort of control the development of each race without them interfearing with each other's development.

  • $\begingroup$ technically what I answered with above doesn't really apply, but a predator can affect agricultural development, for instance, this predators existence keeps them from going out into open fields etc. $\endgroup$ – Garrett Gaddy Jan 19 '17 at 20:31

H Sapiens appeared by 190000 years ago, but agriculture was delayed until 12000 years ago due to the ice ages. Only when the ice ages ended could agriculture develop. Extending the ice age would have delayed agriculture.

  • $\begingroup$ Is an ice age really such a hard lock? I'd think that it just shifts climatological zones toward the equator (tundra becomes iced over, temperate becomes tundra, mediterrenean becomes temperate, desert becomes mediterranean). Agriculture would then just develop in more southern regions. $\endgroup$ – Arcturus24 Jan 19 '17 at 20:51
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Arcturus24 It was a lot drier during ice ages. A lot of water was locked up in ice sheets, and the colder overall temperatures resulted in less evaporation from the oceans and thus less rainfall. $\endgroup$ – TheBlackCat Jan 19 '17 at 21:30

My first thought is what Zxyrra writes up: not all regions here on Earth developed agroculture. Maybe suitable species did not exist anywhere.

Now the other thing: there have indeed been multiple intelligent hominins alive at the same time (just not anymore). We even had hobbits!

So why do you need to reach the point of modern humans before dividing into more species?

Consider also that humans have extremely poor variation, due to bottlenecks in the past. If that were not the case, then maybe you would get the differences you want much faster. Dogs, for example, are rather flexible and you have great danes and chihuahuas, all as one species.

So why not allow your progenitor species to have high diversity and the same kind of genetic flexibility? The different peoples you have could start out as simply different breeds of the same species, and then separately lose the diversity through bottlenecks or founder effects.



As noted in other questions, an extended Ice Age is a great solution to the problem. See the human section below on how I would handle that.

The other way to do it is to have other disasters strike, that are difficult to recover from. I gave the dwarves and orcs and magical cataclysm (see below) but it really can be anything. The best answer here isn't necessarily that you have to extend anything, but that you hit the race as they develop and then agriculture gets pushed back again.

You might even get creative, and you can stop exploration or societal evolution with other things--an illness that wipes out much of the population in one place or rampant xenophobia and fear of the beyond which can be borne from magic, illness or other things.

And, if this is a fantasy world, exploration and spreading out may be hindered by magical barriers, or getting eaten by fantastic creatures. Natural barriers like a vast ocean can also help.


You can also use magical "radiation" in order to speed up the evolutionary process, basically use certain magical zones to drive evolution towards specific environmental adaptations, which may happen at a faster rate because of the magic present.

Depends on your flavor of dwarves, elves and so on...

Dwarves-- Suited to the underground. Traits they may have include a lack of magic, a resistance to magic, short stature and other things. They tend to be short and wide. Perhaps a magical cataclysm in their area drove them underground, and any that survived had a natural resistance. The area around their caverns were, perhaps, so dangerous that no others could or wanted to explore them for many thousands of years or perhaps longer. This underground life means that agriculture is not a top priority because of the lack of sunlight. The dwarves in my world dislike and are a bit allergic to sunlight because of this.

Orcs-- Can live at the fringes of the cataclysm. They were the ones who survived, but didn't have a magical resistance.

Elves-- Tend to be good with magic and nature. Slender. Can be taller or shorter than your standard human depending on what you want to do with them. They tend to be forest-minded rather than agriculturally minded, so you want to put them someplace where the forest is so abundant that agriculture isn't needed, or they've adapted to need less. The magic in their area can be more benign, but cut off by dangerous zones.

Humans-- Maybe they do develop agriculture, and maybe there's a series of Ice Ages, each one setting back civilization by many years. Imagine your standard Ice Age, give humans enough time to start to develop agriculture and then hit 'em with an Ice Age again.

  • $\begingroup$ You have an unmatched bold markup mark. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jan 19 '17 at 21:30

Well, humanity(that is the Homo genus) has existed for around 2 million years, that is plenty of time for the small changes, but maybe you want something bigger. The best way of doing this is to have the more radically different ones in barren terrain, such as ice fields, deserts or mountains. They will take longer to discover agriculture.


The reason agriculture developed was not time, there were no particular progressive changes in behavior or tool use that made agriculture possible. Agriculture became possible because of the environment. The ice age had ended, wild edible grasses were around and ripe for cultivation, and the climate was appropriate for semi-settled populations to develop.

So the simplest way to delay the development of agriculture is delay the end of the last ice age. The ice age took, say, twice as long, giving you another few hundred thousand years. That would give you plenty of time.

  • $\begingroup$ That might have been the case in the fertile crescent, but agriculture also developed (more slowly) in other parts of the world. Fertile crescent-based agriculture was so efficient that the civilizations it spawned overwhelmed many civilizations based on other agriculture, but who can say what, say, the Inca's or Polynesians might have achieved if left alone? Although that might have developed slow enough for evolution to take place... Who knows really. $\endgroup$ – Arcturus24 Jan 19 '17 at 21:01

Remove Ungulate species

See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ungulate

Without cows/horse/yak/... to help us labouring/transporting/fertilizing/...

Agriculture would be much harder.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.