The Yungang caves were carved during the fifth century in China.
For generations, people have retreated to caves when faced with war, persecution, poverty, or a harsh climate. They’ve chiseled through rock, burrowed deep into the earth or moved into what was naturally there, to find some escape from the less favorable conditions outside.
Relentlessly extreme climates compelled some communities to make their homes in caves, where the environment stays reliably temperate. The residents of the Coober Pedy mining town in the Australian Outback settled underground to avoid the intense desert heat. Similarly, the people of Guadix, Spain, carved their homes out of hills.
Caves also provided protection during times of war. Early Christians fled to the caves of Cappadocia to escape persecution and the wrath of Rome. Mao Zedong used the cave complex of Yan’an, China, as a base while he mobilized rural support in the years leading up to the Chinese Communist Revolution. European civilians and soldiers also hid in caves to shield themselves during insurgencies; in France soldiers sheltered in limestone quarries during the First World War.
Peasants, the poor, and those who could not afford to build their own homes have sought shelter in caves. And those caves often became expressions of culture. The Berbers in Matmata, Tunisia, settled in underground houses centuries ago. But many families left their traditional homes in the push toward modernization after Tunisia gained independence from France in 1956—a push that locals suspect disguised an effort to undermine their culture.
Cave homes require little, if any, energy to heat or cool rooms, so they were seen as a greener alternative to more conventional housing. Research firms focused on urban design and planning have even argued that underground dwellings could be the future of cities, addressing current resource challenges like a lack of urban space. Firms in Singapore and Mexico have been working on major plans for underground housing.
But sometimes caves aren’t just a place for protection during times of trouble. Many caves, including the very same ones in Cappadocia that fourth century Christians fled to, have been converted to cultural heritage sites, restaurants, and hotels.