The Testimony of Hands

Survivor: Prehistory—Shelter

Spruce Tree House in Winter

People living in different places have always built shelters based on the climate and building materials available where they lived. The photo shown above is of Spruce Tree House, in Mesa Verde National Park, during a winter storm.

Everyone needed to make fires, to cook food and keep warm when it got cold. According to Pangiotis Karkanas and his colleagues, the controlled use of fire began at least a quarter million years ago, possibly much earlier.


This piece of wood has singed edges where a bow drill was used to start fires.

To cut wood, whether for shelter or for a fire, you'll need an axe. If you're in survival mode, you can make an axe head out of a hard rock! Prehistoric examples range from the very crude to examples that were highly labor-intensive but beautiful. Cutting down a tree with a stone axe is a lot more work than using a freshly sharpened steel axe, but with patience it can be done.


The next photograph shows a prehistoric beam end cut with a stone axe. Compared to an end cut with a steel axe, the end looks more rounded and "chewed on." Which, in a sense, it is. When Southwest archaeologists find timbers with ends cut with stone axes, they know that the timbers predate the arrival of steel axes in that area.

hold for catalogue number
2015.2.61, end of a beam cut with a stone axe

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Image of Spruce Tree House copyright © Holly Franklin, 2007; used by permission. All other content copyright © Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, University of New Mexico. High-resolution versions of Maxwell Museum photographs may be ordered from the museum's photo archives. Please note of the catalogue number. For more information please visit the photo archives web page.

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