Today, when humans can mechanically control the climate on any indoor structure by simply installing a furnace or air conditioner, it can be hard to fathom how some ancient civilizations survived in extreme weather.
All over the world, ancient people survived in harsh conditions, and in some cases, thrived. How was it possible for them to compete with the onslaught of weather and stay alive? In most cases, it was because they knew how to build their houses to maximize thermal properties and keep the elements out.
The Inuit people of the Arctic were one such civilization. The Arctic is the northernmost part of our planet, and as such, is extremely cold. There is not an abundance of natural materials for building houses and other structures, so the Inuit had to make do with they had at hand. Specifically, that meant a whole lot of snow and ice. Using blocks carved out of ice or made of packed snow, the Inuit realized they could make small structures called igloos to survive in the extreme cold.
The average winter temperature in the Arctic is -40 degrees Fahrenheit. Given the average human body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, exposure to such cold conditions can leave a person dead in a matter of hours. Igloos are amazingly efficient thermal insulators, especially in light of the fact they are constructed entirely out of snow and ice. The walls of an igloo block the wind, which is a big step in protecting body heat. The second step comes from the incredible insulation properties of ice. Using a small candle or just the body heat of a person, the inside temperature of an igloo can stay around 60 degrees Fahrenheit. That still may sound a little chilly, but given the -40 degrees outside, it will enable a person to survive.
All throughout the hottest climates on Earth, native people built homes for thousands of years made out of whatever materials they had lying around. While none of these people had to worry about freezing to death, hot weather is just as dangerous and can dehydrate and kill a person in a matter of hours. As these regions typically do not have an abundance of forestry or timber, they had to make do with what they had, which was a multitude of different kinds of dirt. These people mixed together several different ingredients and made a construction material referred to as adobe. Buildings made with adobe are among some of the oldest structures in world, which is a testament to the ingenuity of our ancestors.
Adobe is made by combing clay, dirt, water, and some type of binding agent, usually straw, small sticks, or animal manure. The mixture is then shaped into bricks and dried in the sun. Once the bricks are hardened, they are used just as bricks are today, secured together with wet adobe. Due primarily to the thickness of adobe bricks, they absorb heat from the sun and do not let it transfer to the inside of the building. When the sun sets and the night turns cool, the bricks then radiate the collected heat back out, warming the inside of the structure.
Pit houses have been used by humans for thousands of years, although they typically do not last as long as other structures. They are created by digging a pit in the earth, usually a few feet deep, and building walls and a roof over the pit. The walls and roof are then sealed by whatever is at hand, from animal skins to wood. The partially subterranean structure of the dwelling means that it is an efficient insulator, similar to an adobe dwelling. It will remain cool during the heat of the day, and warm at night due the insulation from being below ground level. After a few seasons, however, most pit houses would have to be abandoned due to natural deterioration and erosion.
Ancient humans were able to survive in extreme climates by using ingenuity. Using what they had at hand, which often wasn’t much, they existed in harsh conditions. The entire structure they lived in was created for the sole purpose of keeping the elements out, and they surely succeeded.