Published on March 4, 2013 by Amy
A pit-house is a primitive dwelling dug into the ground and roofed over. Besides providing shelter from extremes of weather, these structures may also be used to store food and for cultural activities like the telling of stories, dancing, singing and celebrations.
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In archaeology, pit-houses are also termed sunken featured buildings and are found in numerous cultures around the world. These include: the people of the American Southwest, including the ancestral Pueblo, the ancient Fremont and Mogollon cultures, the Cherokee, the Inuit, the people of the Plateau, and archaic residents of Wyoming (Smith 2003) in North America; Archaic residents of the Lake Titicaca Basin (Craig 2005) in South America; Anglo Saxons in Europe; and the Jōmon people in Japan. Anglo Saxon pit-houses may have actually represented buildings for other functions than just dwellings and have a specialised name derived from German, “Grubenhäuser”
Usually, all that remains of the ancient pit-house is a dug out hollow in the ground and any postholes used to support the roof. In the nineteenth century, it was believed that most prehistoric peoples lived in pit-houses although it has since been proved that many of the features thought of as houses were in fact food storage pits or served another purpose.
In the northwestern Great Plains and the Plateau region located nearby, climate changes and extreme temperature and weather conditions made it difficult to live year round. Hot summers led to the building of simple tent like structures that were portable and could be packed up to move. For cold winter months, pit-houses provided the warm, protected shelter necessary for survival.
A cross-cultural middle range model of pit-house architecture using the Ethnographic Atlas found that 82 of the 862 societies in the sample occupy pit structures as either their primary or secondary dwellings.
All but six of the 82 societies live above 32° north latitude, and four of the six cases in this sample that are below 32° north latitude are from “high mountain” regions in east Africa, Paraguay, and eastern Brazil. The last example is from the Yami who occupied a small island south of Formosa.
Three conditions were always present among groups in the sample: 1) non-tropical climate during the season of pit structure habitation; 2) minimally a biseasonal settlement pattern; 3) reliance on stored food during the period of pit structure occupation. These conditions may be related to other factors of society and the presence of any or all of these three elements in society does not pre-condition occupation of pit structures. Nonetheless, these three conditions were present in all cases of pit structure occupation present in the Ethnographic Atlas. Other cultural patterns were common, but not universal across the sample. These commonalities include: cold season of occupation, low population estimates, and simple political and economic systems.
The ethnographic sample is based almost entirely on case studies from societies located in northern latitudes. Period of pit structure occupation is generally during the cold season. This is probably due to their thermal efficiency. Dug into the ground, pit structures take advantage to the insulating properties of soil, as well as having a low profile protecting them from exposure to wind induced heat loss. Since less heat is lost by transmission than above ground structures, less energy is required to maintain stable temperatures inside the structure. Out of the 82 ethnographic cases in the Ethnographic Atlas 50 societies had population estimates and of these 64% had fewer than 100 people per settlement. In only 6% cases were there more than 400 persons per settlement. The cases with the highest population densities were the Arikara and Hidatsa of the North American Great Plains and the Konso of Ethiopia. Gilman attributes high population densities among the Arikara to the availability of buffalo.
Pit structure occupations are generally associated with simple political and economic systems. For 86% of the sample, class stratification or social distinctions based on non-hereditary wealth were reported as absent. However, some pit dwelling societies are characterized by chiefdom level complexity. In terms of economic organization, 77% of the societies who occupy pit structures had a hunting and gathering economy. This is a large fraction of the sample but is not considered a universally consistent feature like biseasonal settlement and a reliance on stored foods during pit structure occupation.
During the part of the year when people are not living in pit structures activities should be focused on acquiring foods to store. Based on the sample from the Ethnographic Atlas, this may be through either hunting and gathering or agricultural activity.