“Rock shelter” is what we call the rock overhangs where hunter-gatherers lived and worked. In fact, most times when we say the word “cave”, we really mean something more like a boulder tumble or open-faced rock overhang than an actual cave-like tunnel. Truthfully, to my sensibilities, rock shelters feel very exposed. At first site of a “rock shelter” I always run through a curious mental checklist of its merits as an actual shelter to judge if I think I might have chosen to live there.

I am always curious to notice a rock shelter’s orientation to the sun, wind, and if it would be effective at keeping a person dry in a rainstorm. Usually, these shelters are incredibly effective north or east facing arrangements that keep the blistering rays of mid-to-late day sun off a working person’s back as the sun walks its daily southerly trail to the west. But rain, how well does it work in a heavy downpour if it is not fortified with a brush hut built out from the rock? This is something I like to see for myself, whenever I can, during or after a rainstorm.

On the topic of rain protection. People have commented to me that people who live outdoors all the time would have been less sensitive to the elements than we are today so they didn’t always need shelter. I grant that perspective to a certain extent, however, I must push back against this view for many reasons. The American Southwest is mountainous. Many ancient natives lived at higher elevations during a cooler epoch than we currently imagine. Some lived in mountains during summer and in the desert in the winter.  Summer rains are still very heavy and cold and, until recent times, desert received a lot of winter snow.

I have personally been camping in heavy summer rainstorms in the Southern California mountains and EVERYTHING gets soaking wet. The ground floods in torrents, water pours through the trees, and the air dumps sheets of water. There is not a dry place on the landscape. Once you and all your belongings are wet and the wind hits you, hypothermia is a natural, physical threat no matter how much you hunt or gather for a living. Also, I have children, and babies, no matter where or into what lifestyle they are born, must always be protected from extreme elements. Hypothermia is no joke and I can’t imagine there was ever a civilization on earth that craved to allow children and elderly to sleep in cold pouring rain while their internal organs worked in a panic to stave off hypothermia. That isn’t a thing. People sought shelter.

Also, basketry, some textiles and most foods do not fare well when wet. They will simply rot. In cold, humid seasons or climates this effect is intensified because the items dry so slowly. Ancient southwesterners did not use pottery at all before about the year 1 CE. Baskets, skins and gourds were used for storage containers. Again, these items are not great for storage when soaking wet.  I believe that dry storage for people and belongings has always been necessary for modern humans. Perhaps people didn’t always feel the need to seal themselves off entirely from the elements as we do today, but they had a modern sense of self preservation and the intelligence to be proactive about finding or making shelter for themselves and their stored food.

One thought

  1. I would expect that folks “back then” would be just as hopeful for (concerned with) comfort as folks “now”. What I would expect to be different would be the knowledge and capability to make a given situation comfortable.

    I’d likely manage OK in the desert, but I’d probably not do so well in “9 feet of snow”.

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