See vintage photos of cave dwellings around the world

From France to Tunisia to China to Australia, people have long found shelter underground.

Published 8 Oct 2019, 12:06 BST

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 favourable 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 mobilised 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 modernisation 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.

Read More

You might also like

History and Civilisation
Notre Dame portraits celebrate restoration with vintage photography
History and Civilisation
These history-defining moments shaped 2020
History and Civilisation
Hong Kong mourns the end of its way of life as China cracks down on dissent
History and Civilisation
Twists of fate made Nagasaki a target 75 years ago
History and Civilisation
The story of New France: the cradle of modern Canada

Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Newsletter
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2021 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved