In all of human history, have there been societies actually living underground?

From the ancient catacombs to the modern subways, people have always moved underground for short periods of time. But have entire societies of people lived underground? Yes, but historically only in emergency situations and when they had no other choice. In recent decades, however, the situation has begun to change.

“The main important thing to know about underground space is that we don’t belong there. Biologically, physiologically, our bodies just aren’t meant to live underground,” says Will Hunt, author of Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet (Random House, 2019).

“And yet there are times when we go underground.

Throughout history, people have lived temporarily underground for a variety of reasons. If there were no materials to build houses, they dug underground dwellings, Hunt told Live Science.

In places with extreme climates, people went underground in the summer to keep warm, and in the winter to keep warm. Underground was also a safe place to hide from enemies.

For example, ancient people built the famous underground cities in Cappadocia in what is now Turkey for protection from bad weather and war.

“Geographically, they were in a very strategic location,” Hunt says. “They were constantly under attack.”

During emergencies, residents would go underground, but they didn’t stay there for long, perhaps a few weeks.

One of the largest underground cities in Cappadocia is Derinkuyu, which dates to around the 7th or 8th century and could hold about 20,000 people, according to Atlas Obscura.

Geophysicists have determined that another recently discovered city in the region covers 5 million square feet (460,000 square meters) and may be 371 feet (113 meters) deep, National Geographic reported. If true, the newly discovered city of Cappadocia will be about a third as large as Derinkuyu.

Cappadocia’s underground cities are an “architectural marvel,” Hunt said. Wells were sunk deep into the water table. Holes leading to the surface served as ventilation shafts. Protective structures – including large round stones that ancient people rolled out before entering the city – separated those inside from invaders on the surface.

However, not all underground dwellings were as elaborate as those in Cappadocia. People also lived in natural and man-made caves, Hunt noted. Constructed caves can be found wherever there is suitable geology, such as stone hills of layered rock, a soft volcanic rock in which it is easy to dig.

“They’re very common,” he said. “People create cave dwellings all over the world.”

Even in modern Australia, in a town called Coober Pedy, about half the population lives in “dugouts,” or burrows carved into hillsides, according to Smithsonian magazine.

Many marginalized populations have taken refuge underground in the abandoned infrastructure of modern cities.

There are fewer of these “mole people” in New York City than in the 1980s, but perhaps more than 1,000 homeless people live in tunnels under city streets, Hunt says. Many homeless people also live in tunnels under Las Vegas. And in Bucharest, Romania, large communities of homeless orphans live under the streets.

As more and more people move into cities, more citizens are able to move underground. Cities like Singapore are exploring the possibility of underground buildings.

According to Yoon Hee Lee, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia who studies the psychology of being underground, the technology needed to do so already exists. The problem is convincing people to move underground.

In fact, being underground does not yet cause negative psychological effects as long as the lighting, room size, ceiling height and other physical characteristics of the environment match those of the ground, Lee says.

For example, technologies such as light wells, which allow natural sunlight to illuminate underground spaces using materials such as reflective paint, can combat depression resulting from lack of sunlight. People may feel isolated from their counterparts on the surface, and they may feel a lack of control, but those feelings are manageable, Lee said.

However, people still don’t like the idea of living underground.

In any case, Lee believes that people around the world will begin moving to a new level of living soon, inspired by places that pave the way, such as RÉSO, an underground city in Montreal, Canada, more than 20 miles long that includes shopping malls, offices, hotels and schools.

“It’s very real that we’re going to go underground soon. At least within 30 years there will be more underground jobs, more underground entertainment venues,” she said.

“It’s coming. It’s not just an idea.”

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