The Subterranean Habitations of Cremating Tribes


    The Pygmids are called ‘forest people’ because they avoid civilised life. They avoid large villages, roads and paths and living aloof in the rain forest scattered in small groups. They lead a nomadic life, wandering in large circles and staying overnight in temporary camps. They move in small hordes not exceeding twenty members of a small clan. They live in small monogamous families, usually from three to five marital couples surrounded with throngs of little children. Their housing developed in several stages: (1) wind-screen, (2) double lean-to, (3) semidugout hut,  (4) sweat-house sauna. If we want to trace their evolution, it is more convenient to enquire into their architecture in an ascending order from Tasmanian isolates to Lappish sweat-house saunas.

    Windscreen. A single windscreen was used as a protection against cold winds for camping overnight in Australia and Tasmania. It was formed by one leant sloping platform of boughs with leaves that was supported by one or two posts on the upwind side. The Athapascan Indians used a simple windscreen only for summertime camps. The Yokuts had a summer windscreen called ramada from poles and boughs. The Chukchanai had similar brush houses of boughs. These shelters were accompanied by ‘earth baths’ functioning as the earliest earth-dwellings. Whenever the Sanids wanted to protect their body from heat or cold in high or low temperatures they buried their body in sand up to their necks. This method enabled them to survive scorchers as well as frosts.  

    Double lean-to. Up to recent times most Sanids and Pygmies in Africa used a double lean-to tent, a provisory dwelling consisting of two wooden platforms leant against one another and supported by one central post (Bernatzik 1962: 188, fig, 53). The inner gables remained empty without any sidewalls. The platforms were made of boughs covered with large banana leaves. The tent was sunk into the earth in case of severe weather or a longer stay. One of standard Athapascan habitations was a double lean-to consisting of two thatched sides enclosed by a gable from each side (Driver 1973: 118ff.).

    A different type was used by Epi-Gravettian colonists who drifted from Spain and Sicily to eastern Europe.  Their dwelling at Dolní Věstonice in Moravia (Jelínek 1972: 232) looked like a standing locust whose long wing-sheaths sloped down to the earth and were supported by posts serving as the front entrance. In the Ukraine the dwellings reconstructed at a site in Kostienki I look like subterranean lodges of pear-like shape. Such a subterranean semidugout became later known as a zemlyanka and remained a common type of architecture up to the Slavonic period.

    Pyramids. The typical house of Athapascans was a shallow pit lodge consisting of a four-pitched pyramid made of logs supported by a rectangular framework of horizontal logs. It was occupied by at least three families, each possessing a wooden log side platform used as a bed. The southern Athapascans applied hemispherical shapes and conical huts of bark but these types should be omitted from consideration as secondary loans. Such conical pyramids, sunk half a metre into the ground, enjoyed wide popularity also among the Lapps and Samoyeds. Their architectonical style would class them as Athapascan relatives without Epi-Gravettian roots.   

    Semi-dugouts. The Yokuts preferred to build houses that were round or oval in their ground-plan, and sank their floor two feet below the ground level. The floor was stamped hard by feet and had special wooden platforms by the side that served as beds. The Monache and Coastal Miwok had houses with excavated floors. In their middle there was a central depression for a hearth dug up one more foot deeper (Sturtevant 1978: VIII, 430). The Maidu made deeper earth lodges and subterranean assembly halls, some being four feet in depth. The centres of larger communities were occupied by larger assembly subterraneans, which were deeper and covered with earth. The Nisenan called it k’úm, a dance house. It was three or four feet deep and it had three or four poles. Other tribes of cremating incinerators in Californian would do with just one foot as the average depth. At the top of the construction there was an exit for smoke. The roofs from bark flanks were supported by the rectangular inner construction of logs holding the corners. The outer edge of the hut was often banked by a ditch or a mound so that no water might soak in.















   Sweat-houses. The winter earth-covered semi-subterranean lodges were air-tight and too hot for summer housing. Athapascans combined them with summertime windscreens and wintertime sweat-houses. The sweathouses for men had similar constructions. Besides, there were granaries for acorns and menstruation huts for young girls (Kroeber 1925: 407ff.). The Athapascan sweat-houses as well as their primitive varieties among Californian tribes must have had a common origin with the saunas of the Finnish Lapps. We explain them as a natural product of ‘pyrolithic’ heating and boiling techniques. This consisted in glowing stones and throwing them in a red-hot state into the snow or a tub with water. The vapours could heat the subterranean lodge without keeping the hearth burning all night.   

    The cremating tribes of California never gathered into large village communities. The Maidu constructed their dwellings on elevated places in a mixed coniferous forest. Their settlements lay on low hills, ridges or edges of valleys. Every valley defined a closed village territory. The huts were scattered unevenly in small hamlets. The Maidu houses were inhabited by five persons on average and their villages consisted of seven houses surrounding the central earth lodge used as an assembly hall. The total population of a village amounted to 35 people. Three or five villages were loosely joined into a village community of about 200 people united under one headman or chieftain (Kroeber 1925: 397). The Monache were scattered even in smaller units. Having no central villages and communities, they were dispersed in small hamlets. They ranged from one to eight huts with an average of three huts. Most included thirteen 13 people per place (Sturtevant 1978: VIII, 431).

    In South America the Arawak tribes lived in larger houses but had preserved scattered patterns of habitation to a great extent. The Betoi did not dwell in large villages communities but built their huts in small hamlets called caseríos or rancheríos. Their typical abode, called caney, could house an extended family under a loose construction of poles. Its roof was usually thatched with grass (Steward 1948: IV, 394). Young married couples often chose to build a house of their own in a secluded place in the forests. They did not like joining their family and old folks in the hamlet. They also avoided a close neighbourhood of the bridegroom’s parents.


(Extract from Pavel Bělíček: Prehistoric Dialects II. Prague 2004, p. 646-648)