Sunday, December 28, 2014

Prehistoric Middle Earth: The real life equivalents of Tolkien's creatures

This December marks the last of the live-action films based on the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, and I’m a big fan of both the films and the books.  Why am I talking about it on my blog? Well, the creatures described by Tolkien (and depicted by WETA workshop) bear some resemblance to those in prehistory! So I’m going to go down the list of Middle Earth beings and animals that had equivalents in real life! So prepare for a 3-hour post!

First, there’s the Hobbits themselves.  At 4 feet tall, you’d think they’d have no human equivalents other than people with growth disorders. However, in 2003, people found a species of extinct human on the Indonesian island of Flores. Homo floresiensis, as the species is called, was a dwarf species, a species that evolves when a normally large species establishes a population becomes isolated on a small island and the limited resources promote a drastic reduction in size. The discoverers nicknamed H. floresiensis the Hobbit, but can’t use it in scientific papers as the name is still under copywright to the Tolkien estate. These Hobbits, like their Tolkien counterparts, lived in isolation from most humans and mainland animals. The prehistoric Shire was far from placid, though-Komodo dragons extended their range to Flores in prehistoric times, and a species of marabou stork lived in Southeast Asia and could have preyed on the small humans.

There’s no prehistoric hominid similar to the elves, but there is a sort of Dwarf.  Tolkien’s Dwarves are between 4 ½ and 5 feet, broad, hairy and sturdy, with incredible strength despite their size.   There was a species of human fitting that description-H. neanderthalensis. Neanderthals were short, wide, with massively muscled upper bodies and robust bones.  Like the Dwarves, they were found in the North and East, and dwindled in numbers as H. sapiens took over Eurasia.  Unlike dwarves, they were technologically backward, seemingly one step behind the modern humans. They had tools and language and art, but their brains seemed to have difficulty with abstract concepts.  They had hafted tools, but never developed anything like the atlatl. They had fire, but no needles for layered clothes. Like dwarves, they probably adapted to the cold with stocky builds and a great deal of body hair. 

Who would be the orcs? Orcs are violent but with a great variety of physical variation, great strength, and huge in numbers. They enjoy fire and killing, and will eat each other given the need.  Homo erectus, our distant ancestor, is the closest here. H. erectus was the first human to achieve the control of fire, sophisticated tool kits, and modern body sizes.   H. erectus has shown so much variation that some argue there are 5 different species-the Chinese, South Asian, European, African, and Flores island varieties.  Not only did erectus people stretch across Africa, but across Asia from Israel to Korea and even into Spain and Turkey.  Most varieties went extinct due to the mass extinctions from volcanism and ice ages, as well as competition between populations for humans. They’re almost as muscular as Neanderthals-baboon bones have been found crushed and smashed by stone tools wielded with great strength.  Like orcs, they’re not as intelligent as humans or dwarves-their brains developed incredibly, then remained static in variety until they were displaced by the more intelligent Neanderthals and other advanced humans.  Cut marks on human bones of Neanderthals and erectus show that both kinds were cannibals at times, and osteological studies suggest that erectus and its descendants (including us) enjoyed meat to the point of Hypervitaminosis A.

The trolls of Middle Earth are sturdy, stony giants more than 10 feet tall. They’re carnivorous, violent, and brutish. Stupid but immensely strong, they act as the brute force behind the armies of Morgoth and Sauron. Prehistory’s trolls are much more benign. While bipedal apes never get bigger than most humans, the largest ape was the size of a troll. Orangutans once had two cousin species-Sivapithecus (possibly an ancestor) and Gigantopithecus. Gigantopithecus is only known from teeth and jaws, but even assuming a large orangutan head and teeth, it would suggest an animal more than 5 feet at the shoulder in its usual quadrupedal stance and 10 feet tall standing up.  However, the teeth are caked with phyoliths or plant impressions fossilized in the enamel. They suggest a bamboo diet supplanted by  large fruit. Pandas are the main ecological equivalent, and they did share most of China in the Pleistocene until competition with Homo and the ravages of the ice ages drove them to extinction.

A third creation of Morgoth used as a soldier of evil is the warg. Wargs are to wolves what orcs are to elves and humans-stripped of identity and free will and mutated into monsters for war. Wargs are big enough for orcs to ride in the books, and the films depict them as something like 5 to 6 feet at the shoulder.  Both Saruman’s wargs and Gundabad wargs from the films are composites of various animal traits-lion, hyena, wolf, bear. I guess to cover wargs we must talk about the biggest predators of all time.

Remember those cannibal humans? Well, mingled in with human butcher marks are fang marks and crushed skulls. In the Zhoukoutien fossil site (“Peking Man”), a cave is full of crushed skulls and bones. They were crushed by the biggest hyena of all time-3 feet at the shoulder, 5 feet long, and 150 pounds in weight. Pachycrocuta shared its range with H. erectus, and the two predators and scavengers would have been fierce competitors and not above devouring each other given the chance. 

The biggest dog was Epicyon haydeni-10 Million years ago, it was the top predator of North America. 6 feet long , 180 lbs, and more than 3 feet at the shoulder, in a pack they could take down the camels, horses and rhinos of its habitat with ease. 

Bigger still were the bear dogs-the largest species, Amphicyon ingens was more than 1,000 lbs, 10 feet long, and 4 feet at the shoulder. 

The biggest mammalian predators, however, were not true canivorans. They belonged to older stock.  They were the creodonts. From the late Eocene of Mongolia, a 20 inch bearlike skull was found and named Sarkastodon. This animal, assuming the proportions of its relatives from Europe and North America, would have been 11 feet long, 4 feet at the shoulder, and 1,000 lbs in weight.  Soon after it became extinct, a relative took its place, Hyeanodon gigas was the largest of its very successful genus, but known from only jaw and teeth. 10 feet long and 5 feet at the shoulder, it had longer, cursorial (evolved for running) legs and a longer snout than Sarkastodon.   Sarkastodon in turn replaced the giant Mesonychid (primitive carnivores) Mongolestes and Mongolonyx.
One of the last creodonts was Hyainailouros, and it was the largest hypercarnivore of all time.  One species, also called Megistotherium, was the biggest of the genus, with a two foot skull. Using the proportions of the slightly smaller European species, Megistotherium/Hyainailuros would have been 5 feet tall and 10 feet long, the same size as Sarkastodon and Hyaeonodon, which suggests an upper limit for mammalian land predators

Another giant known from only a skull was found in the same rock as Sarkastodon and may have been a rival; this is Andrewsarchus, and it’s really weird. The skull is 3 feet long, but it’s the only thing found. We honestly know little on what it looked like.  The most recent analysis placed it with Arctocyon, a big predator related to pigs, hippopotami, whales and entelodonts (fun fact: the largest species, about the size of a jaguar, is called Arctocyon Mumak). So, using the European species Arctocyon pirmaevus with a 8 inch skull, 2 feet at the shoulder and 4 feet long, we can surmise that Andrewsarchus was 6 feet at the shoulder and 12 feet long!  The teeth are strong and blunt, and so probably used to crush tough plants, bone, and shell. Until we find the limbs, though, it’s hard to tell what kind of predator it was or even if it was a predator. 
 So really, the wargs could be Amphicyon, Andrewsarchus, Megistotherium, or Sarkastodon.

Outside the Mines of Moria, the Fellowship is attacked by a tentacled monster like a squid or octopus. The size and strength is implied in the book and showcased in the film-it’s a kraken, more or less. The largest cephalopods are the largest (by mass) invertebrates ever. The octopus Enteroctopus dofleini can reach more than 20 feet in length. The giant squids Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni at 30 feet, 1000 lbs and Architeuthis dux at 40 feet, 600 lbs are the largest living cephalopods, deep sea predators.  

Extinct giant cephalopods include the Cretaceous ammonite (coil-shelled mollusk) Parapuzosia seppenradensis, 10 feet in diameter and 3,000 lbs in weight, the Ordovician orthocone (straight shelled mollusk) Cameroceras at 20 feet long  and the Cretaceous vampire squid Tusoteuthis with a pen (the hard part of a squid) about the same size as modern giant squids. 

The Mumakil of Far Harad are clearly based on elephants, but their three depictions in art, the Return of the King Cartoon, and the Lord of the Rings films show very different probiscideans.  Art based on the books depicts a giant elephant, not too different from today’s elephants.  The largest true elephant was the subgenus to modern Elephas, Palaeoloxodon recki. This Pliocene straight-tusked elephant reached 15 feet tall, bigger than any other elephant. 

 The cartoon depicted giant mammoths. Now, wooly mammoths are no bigger than Indian elephants today. However, their ancestor was the gigantic steppe mammoth of Russia and Europe and Colombian mammoth of North America, both 13-15 feet at the shoulder.  One specimen found in the Chinese Songhua river reached more than 16 feet at the shoulder.   

The films show animals the size of AT-AT walkers, far bigger than any probscidean ever, but what makes them especially unique is their double pair of tusks. This may seem like WETA dabbling in flights of fantasy, but there was a big elephant with four tusks.  In the beginning of elephant evolution, all elephants have four tusks-two mandibular and two maxillar, using all four incisors.  Gompotherium was the classic “four tusked elephant” from the early Miocene. Some, like Platybelodon and Ambelodon, evolved their lower tusks into shovel-like scoops. The last and largest of the four-tuskers was an elephant, the most primitive in the family, Stegotetrabelodon.  It ranged from Syria to Africa before the land became barren, reached 13 feet at the shoulder, and had four long tusks. 

After their horses are slain by the waters of the Brunien, the Nazgul find new mounts, seen in the Two Towers and Return of the King.  They are giant winged creatures like a bat or dragon, described as plucked birds with leathery wings.  The Witch King of Angmar falls King Theoden of Rohan from his beast. These Fell Beasts way be the most dangerous animals in Sauron’s army and doubly so ridden by the Nine.   It’s possible Tolkien deliberately based them on pterosaurs, and every depiction since has Pterosaur overtones. The films tried to make them more alien by giving them snake heads rather than beaks, but the motif is the same.  The biggest pterosaurs ever were azdarchids, giants with huge heads and strong wings that made them just as comfortable galloping on all fours as gliding in the air. Arambourgiania (or Titanopteryx, which makes me realize I should have included it in the worst name changes) of Jordon, Quetzalcoatlus of the USA, and Hatzegopteryx of Romania had 35-foot wingspans and while their feet couldn’t grasp like a birds or fell beasts, their beaks could have easily killed human beings.   A mechanical study of Quetzalcoatlus suggested it up to fly 80 miles an hour for a week at altitudes of more than a quarter than a mile, giving it the power of a small airplane. 

Their opposites and enemies on Middle Earth are the giant eagles that befriended Gandalf.  The largest birds of prey in earth’s history are nowhere near the size of King Gwaihir and his subjects, but still impressive. The La Brea fossil site has yielded many specimens of Merriam’s Teratorn, a generalist raptor with a 15- foot wingpan, bigger than condors today.  A poorly known relative, the Incredible Tetatorn was found in the same range and was also a Pleistocene bird, had an 18-foot wingspan but was much rarer. The biggest flying bird ever, however, was from Argentina. Argentavis, the giant teratorn of the Late Miocene, reached 5 feet tall, 160 lbs and had a 23-foot wingspan. Bustards, swans and cranes are huge, as are the Golden, Crowned, and Harpy Eagles, but are chickadees compared to the Teratorns.  Argentavis had a long, hooked beak, probably used to dispatch prey seen from the heights.  Interestingly enough, it shared the Late Miocene of South America with one of the largest terrestrial birds ever, the terror bird Kelenken. Sadly, Gandalf never got to ride one of those.

WETA created their own animal in the “Great beasts” that draw the massive battering ram Grond to destroy Minas Tirith. They  are horned pachyderms that best resemble early giant herbivores like Megacerops and Arsinoitherium. 

Shelob and her Mirkwood brood have no equivalents in the fossil record unfortunately-the biggest spiders known in prehistory are still only the size of bird-eating spiders and tarantulas today. However, they are not the biggest arachnids.  Britain has remains of giant scorpions-the Silurian aquatic species Brontoscorpio is known only from a small swimming limb, but said limb suggests an animal 3 feet long., which is no problem for an armed Hobbit but still respectable. The other giant British scorpion is Pulmonoscorpius from Carboniferous Scotland, slightly smaller at 30 inches but land animal that was the apex of the food chain.  

In the Hobbit, we meet the character of Beorn, a skin-changer who is sometimes a big cranky man and sometimes a giant bear.  There are a number of giant bears in prehistory, all about the size of Alaskan and Kodiak bears. Agriotherium was a more carnivorous species about 10 feet long and weighing almost 1,500 lbs.  The largest “true” Ursus species was Ursus spelaea, the cave bear from ice age Europe at about 1,000 lbs and a very robust body with a distinctive big-nosed high-headed skull and preferred vegetables and bone to meat.   Lastly, there are the giant American short-faced bears. Arctotherium from South America was the largest carnivorous mammal of all time at 3,500 lbs, and its sister species Arctodus from North America was close behind, reaching more than 6 feet at the shoulder and more than 2,000 lbs in weight. 

The Hobbit movies added some interesting fauna to Middle Earth’s bestiary. First are Radagast’s Rhosgobel Rabbits.  The WETA artists designed them on Flemish giants, a domesticated breed about 25 lbs in weight.  However, twice the size of these cuddly critters was the Minorcan giant. In the late Miocene, the island of Minorca was split from the mainland of Spain along with the other Balearic islands by the stretching of faults and the Mediterranean filling in the gap.  So Miocene European rabbits became cut off from all predators, allowing them to grow bigger and bigger, culminating in Nuralagus rex. This giant rabbit flourished and grew to 50 lbs until the Ice Age temporarily joined Minorca with Majorca and the rabbit was outcompeted by the cave goat Myotragus.

Another creative addition is the steed of King Thranduil of Mirkwood. Instead of a horse like Elrond or a boat like Galadriel, he gets around on a giant deer. Fans call it a moose or elk, but it’s pretty obviously based on the giant deer Megaloceros giganteus. Megaloceros split off from elk (including Sika, “red deer” and wapiti) during the Pliocene, and several species existed until the last and largest, M. giganteus emerged.  Weighing up to 1,500 lbs, it would be strong enough to carry a human, and 10-foot antler span would be enough to make natural cavalry weapons. While not a forest animal for obvious reasons, I can see why an elven king would ride into battle on one. 

A final introduced animal in the movies is a giant sheep, fleetingly seen at the battle of Five Armies ridden by dwarves. Dwarven lancers and war chariots are seen in the trailers for the film but cut out from the theatrical film, where they only act as steeds the Dwarves during the attack on the orc commanders.  The largest sheep ever is the Argali or Marco Polo sheep; their rams can reach 44 inches tall and 300 lbs.  However, there’s an interesting story about how a long time ago, a buffalo was mistaken for a sheep by its own discoverer

Smaug, the most impressive of all of Tolkien’s creatures, is, like all dragons, a chimera of different animal physiologies. Fairly late in the post-production process, it was decided by Peter Jackson that Smaug would be more realistic and scary without front legs. This is actually more realistic-all tetrapods, even those with wings, have the same amount of appendages. Birds, bats, and pterosaurs evolved their front limbs to become wings, and either became bipeds like birds or had to use their wings to walk quadrupedally. Hence, when Smaug walks, it’s like a pterosaur or bat  (the documentary on his design says Vampire bats were used as the basis for the walk cycle). 
The head of Smaug, however, is varanid-it is based on a komodo dragon. The head is a flattened triangle, albeit with armadillo lizard head spikes, and the mandible has the curve and underbite of monitors. The teeth are varanid (although many theropods had similar tooth shapes)-short, slender, and curved) and the nostrils at the very tip of the snout. Like a monitor lizard, the teeth are hidden by lips, but unlike monitors Smaug’s lips are prehensile so he can speak.  There is another distinctive tweak-Smaug’s vision is binocular. Monitors rely on their keen scent when stalking and hunting, so their eyes are set wide enough in order to avoid predators-they can see for great distances, but have a poor judge of distance. And while Smaug’s eyes are wide apart enough to give a great deal of vision and it is his scent that finds Bilbo, his snout is narrow enough and his eyes are forward enough to have overlapping fields of vision.  In this way, he resembled Tyrannosaurus-Tyrannosaurs, like other predator colerurosaurs, has a head shape that allows for great depth of vision. Here are some pictures I took of Varanus komodensis, Daspletosaurus sp, and Tyrannosaurus rex to illustrate. As for prehistoric monitors, I discussed the Megalania (V. priscus) in my Prehistoric Australia post


  1. It is not 'more scary' to give Smaug only two legs, it is just stupid and a dire insult to Tolkien who always drew Smaug with four legs and two wings like the proper western dragon and unlike the wyvern. Film makers keep on repeating this brainless mistake. Jackson's faux Smaug is also the wrong colour, brown instead of red/ gold. Jackson has taken the most awesome monster in the history of literature and transformed it into something that looks like a plucked chicken.

    1. Darkred/gold tends to look brown in dark light, unfortunately. We never see Smaug in the daylight.

      Frankly, I like the pterosaur/bat model for Smaug. I would have liked a quadruped, but between WETA's creature design, the good use of Tolkien's material, and a great performance by Cumberbatch made Smaug a really winner in my opinion.

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  3. I'm surprised you didn't mention the Haast's Eagle. Largest eagle ever, preyed on birds 15 times its size, and most remarkably, it lived in New Zealand, where the movies were filmed!

    1. Good catch! I was focused on raptors in general, but Harpagornis is certainly worth a mention.