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The incredible diversity of human shelters

Updated: Jun 5, 2023

By Dr Penny Morgan

Penny is a retired zoologist who specialised in bird behaviour. Post retirement, she took a degree in law and now she is writing thrillers with an animal welfare theme. In this article, she explores humankind's basic need for shelter, illustrated with four amazing examples.

Shelter is a fundamental need for both humans and animals because exposure can be fatal. Shelter provides security, personal safety, protection from the elements, and helps to prevent ill health and disease. The fact that shelters fulfil a fundamental need is exemplified by Abraham Maslow's 'Hierarchy of Needs', a motivational theory that has its fair share of critics. As illustrated by the graphic, the most fundamental level represents the essential physiological needs that must be met before moving to the next level. These needs include food, water, adequate rest, clothing, general health, reproduction, and shelter.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Shelter is at the base of the pyramid.

Animal shelters serve as protection from predators and harsh weather conditions. They also provide a designated area for essential activities such as eating, sleeping, hunting, and raising offspring. Foxes, for instance, burrow into the ground, while beavers construct mud-and-stick lodges in shallow streams. Some bears hibernate through the winter in the hollows of rocky cliffs, and apes build nests of twigs in trees for protection while they sleep.

Let's examine four amazing examples of diverse human shelters, demonstrating how the range of dwellings differs, based on environmental conditions, available resources, and potential hazards.

1. The fairy chimneys of Cappadocia

The fairy chimneys of Cappadocia are unique rock formations found in the Cappadocia region of central Turkey. They are tall, cone-shaped formations made of soft volcanic rock that have been eroded by wind and water over thousands of years. The fairy chimneys are a popular tourist attraction and have been used for housing, storage, and worship by local people for centuries. They are also known for their unusual shapes, which resemble mushrooms or even human-like figures, and have inspired many myths and legends in the region. Beneath them lies the ancient city of Elengubu, known today as Derinkuyu, in Love Valley, Anatolia, Turkey. Dating back to around 370 BCE, it is the largest excavated underground city in the world and was in near-constant use for thousands of years, passing through the hands of the Phrygians (8th-7thC BCE), the Persians, and the Christians of the Byzantine Era. The city was finally abandoned in the 1920s by the Greeks, who were facing defeat during the Greco-Turkish war. Over the centuries, its cave-like rooms extended for hundreds of miles, and more than 200 small underground cities have also been discovered, forming a massive subterranean network.

Fairy chimneys of Cappadocia

Excavations have revealed underground dwellings for dry food storage, cattle stables, schools, wineries, and even a chapel. This complex was an entire civilization of troglodytes (people who live in caves or underground dwellings). The dwellings were dimly lit by lamplight, and half-ton circular boulders blocked the doors between each of the 18 levels, only moveable from the inside. Small perfectly round holes in the centre of these hefty doors allowed residents to spear invaders while maintaining a secure perimeter. Cappadocia's dry soil and malleable easy-to-carve rock make it uniquely suited to this kind of underground construction. The same pyroclastic material was also used to forge the fairy-tale chimneys that jut from the earth above ground. The site became a unique, ingenious haven from the many invaders, allowing the inhabitants to live in relative secrecy and safety.

2. Tree Houses of the Korowai, New Guinea

The Korowai are an isolated hunter-gatherer people who live in the Indonesian part of the island. They live in small groups and have traditional family ties, needing to share all they have in order to survive. Until their discovery by a Dutch missionary in 1974, the Korowai had hardly any contact with the outside world. Their tree houses typically range in height from 6 to 12 metres, with some reaching as high as 35 metres above the ground. Usually, the houses are built on a single tree, often a banyan tree. However, the base of the house frequently consists of several living trees with additional support from wooden poles. These tree houses not only protect families against swarms of disease-carrying mosquitoes but also ward off aggressive neighbours and evil spirits, which conveniently stay on the ground!

3. Nomads of the sea

The Bajau Laut people, also known as sea gypsies, lead a nomadic seafaring lifestyle on their houseboats called lepa lepa, mostly in the coral triangle (Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia), as depicted in the 2011 British television documentary series 'Human Planet'. They are skilled divers, capable of holding their breath for over five minutes, free-diving to depths of 230 feet, and walking on the sea floor. It has been suggested (The Atlantic 2018) that they have evolved unique adaptations to facilitate these feats, such as larger-than-usual spleens, which serve as a depot for oxygen-carrying red blood cells. Their underwater abilities may also be the result of natural selection. Living close to their food source, which is constantly on the move, requires them to live on boats. Originally, their boats were made from light wood, but as the tree from which this wood is sourced is now endangered, they have had to resort to heavier wood and motors, which run on expensive petrol. In addition to this, destructive fishing fleets from China have added to the pressure, sadly resulting in the gradual disappearance of their way of life.

4. The Duhka

The Dukha people, also known as the reindeer people, live north of Lake Khuvsgul in Mongolia. They are one of the few remaining groups of reindeer herders in the boreal forests and depend on the reindeer for nearly all aspects of survival, including cultural and spiritual identity. The Dukha people live in tall yurts, which are similar to North American tipis and have a door and a hole at the top. These yurts are made from the birch bark of approximately 24 trees, and reindeer pelts cover the floor. The Dukha pepole are nomadic and they move every 7-10 weeks. Their movements are determined by the distribution of lichen, which is the primary food source for their reindeer. During winter, they stay deep in the forests to avoid frigid winds and move often to avoid wolves.

All of these widely-dispersed peoples, living in starkly different habitats, have adapted their shelters to the available resources, such as food, and to the dangers (invaders, diseases) posed by their surroundings. In what way has your shelter been adapted to available resources and any dangers posed by your surroundings?

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