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Real-life hobbits & Anatolian refuges

Eleanor Konik
Written by Eleanor Konik

I write stories & articles inspired by all eras of history & science... so I wind up putting notetaking software like Obsidian & Readwise thru their paces.

3 min read.
photo of man in cave by Jeremy Bishop via Pexels
I spend a lot of time thinking about where my characters live — what kinds of environments they grew up in, what kinds of infrastructure they're used to, that sort of thing. I used to think of caves as really primitive (troglodyte literally means 'cave-dweller'), but the more I've learned about them, the more I think they have a lot of potential to elevate the worldbuilding of stories. The dragonriders of Pern, for example, lived in caves carved into dead volcanoes, and it never felt primitive... and hey, isn't one of my big projects as a writer to make Neolithic peoples feel more "like us" and not "weird other creatures" anyway?

Quick Facts

  • This Viking era man-made cave in Iceland might have served as a stall for cattle and horses, but was connected to a wider cave system either way.
  • Just because humanoid fossils were found in a cave doesn't mean the humanoids lived in the cave; they might have been washed there by flooding, for example.
  • Mandrin Cave in Europe was occupied by Neanderthals, then by modern humans (who visited once a year for about 40 years), then by Neanderthals again for another 12,000 years or so. It's a weird little mystery no one has an explanation for.
  • This 40,000 year old cave painting of a 16 foot long hunting scene is the oldest figurative painting currently known. It's located in Indonesia.
  • Medieval hermits often lived in caves; they were given food by local monasteries, and tended to shelter pilgrims on their way to visiting holy sites. Evidently, the video game trope of stumbling across a cave during an adventure isn't that far off.

Efficient Insulation

I mentioned this briefly in the Trade edition, but there's a guy who lives on Socotra island in a cave. It got me to wondering about other modern-day cave dwellers and it turns out that over 30 million people in China live in caves dug into the sides of mountains, mostly in Shaanxi province. Some have electricity and running water and are reinforced with brick. Folks from there prefer caves to concrete houses for a number of reasons, including the excellent temperature insulation and efficient use of arable land.

Hidey Holes

Matiate in Turkey was cave that opened up into a subterranean city in use for 1900 years and capable of housing up to 70,000 people. As far as I can tell it was discovered only 2 years ago, so there's still a lot we don't know. It may have been inhabited by early Christians, who often used caves to help them escape Roman persecution. It had silos, wells, corridors, temples, and probably a bunch more that hasn't been uncovered yet. Apparently it's unusual not just because of its size, but also its shape, but despite reading a multitude of articles about the region I couldn't figure out what "concept" it was based on if not horizontal or vertical spread...

Ventilating Cities

Turkey & the broader region of Anatolia (aka Asia Minor) is home to a bunch of other underground cities, too. The "House of the Muses" in Zeugma has ancient rock-cut dining rooms, and Derinkuyu in Cappadocia is notable for having a large cavern system with soft, stable rocks — which made it easy to turn into a city. There are about 36 other underground cities in the Cappadocia region, filled with rooms used for tombs, stables, bedrooms, bathrooms, cisterns, self-propelled ventilation and more. Most interesting to me is the doors going up and down, and the big circular stone doors that could only be opened from the inside. Incidentally, that article has a nice explanation of the benefits and dangers of underground cities.

Hobbit Homes

Caves on the Indonesian island of Flores were continuously occupied by rats for 190,000 years, but the "human relative" Homo floresiensis ("hobbits" with small brains and very primitive traits) left about 60,000 years ago (around the time modern humans showed up, which may be a coincidence... or not). They probably didn't die out; it's more likely that they moved on as the climate changed. We have pretty good evidence that the rats themselves changed from the "forest dwelling" to the "grassland dwelling" kind in a useful way.

📗 If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy my previous newsletters about housing or art, which touches more on cave paintings and the line between art, craft, tool — and warning.

💚 If you learned something from this overview, consider forwarding it to a friend and encouraging them to sign up for more overviews of my research into obscure history and science.

🗻 Have you ever visited any particularly interesting caves people have ever lived in? Luray Caverns in Virginia is the closest I've ever gotten, so I'd love to hear your stories, either via email or in a comment where other readers can see.

Note: There are a couple of affiliate links & codes scattered around, but these always come from links I was already recommending and usually I share them because they benefit you too (i.e. getting you extra time on trials).

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