American Indians and the lack of buildings

This thread, about the oldest building in the US, got me thinking about the American Indian, about whom I know very little.

Why are there no American Indian buildings? The little I know (mainly from Westerns) depicts tepees as being the only form of habitation. Is this right? I believe that some American Indians practiced agriculture, which would suggest a settled society, which, in turn would suggest permanent buildings. But, a dominant image I have is of them being nomadic, following bison, which would explain the lack of buildings.

I know that there were many tribes, some of whom would not have interacted. But, in popular imagination at least, their cultures seem very similar. So why did all of them not use permanent buildings? For example, if there were tribes in Florida, I can’t see them hunting bison, and therefore not needing to be migratory.

I would have thought that it would be quite difficult for people covering the majority of a continent to leave so little permanent evidence of their existence.

Many of the Native Americans did have buildings. There were the longhouses and the pueblos, which were permanent. The teepee lifestyle is found in the Native Americans who lived in the Great Plains.

And with whom the Americans fought most of the “Indian Wars,” which is why the Plains Indians form a disproportionately large part of Americans’ idea of Indian culture. Plus, a number of settled cultures were forced into nomadism / fragmented settlements after the epidemics, because their populations were too small to support their pre-Contact economies.

Native American Architecture by Nabokov and Easton is an excellent overview.

Wooden buildings don’t last the way stone buildings do, and most native Americans built their settlements out of wood. That’s not surprising. Wood is much easier to work with than stone so if you’re going to build with stone you better have lots of labor on hand and a damn good reason.

In pre-Columbian times the largest populations were in Central America. They had the manpower to build their big religious complexes out of stone. But elsewhere the population was generally too sparse to support an effort of that magnitude.

It did seem odd that they didn’t build houses, but, the next question, then, is are they many left? From speed reading Speaker for the Dead’s links, I see that are some pueblos still standing. The fact that longhouses were built of wood would explain their early demise.

The OP in that other thread specified Eastern area, so the Pueblos didn’t count. Nor do the extensive Indian stone building in Mexico- Aztecs, etc.

There are no remaining ancient (pre-Columbian) eastern wooden buildings. Quite a bit of Mounds, but they weren,t “buildings” per se.

Good grief: are there - there - many left. Even five minutes doesn’t seem to be long enough for me. :smack:

Yes, I know. But I’m curious about the whole area.

The same reason basically that most pre 1492 European houses are no longer there- they were mostly built of wood, thatch, and daub (or bousillage or whatever it was called in an given area- basically mud and clay and dung) and they fell down and rotted.

These are some pics of reconstructed Creek Indian housing in central Alabama:
exterior
interior
summer house- used during hot seasons (when it’d be covered with skins for a bit of privacy).

On average the mud and thatch houses lasted about 7 years before they had to be rebuilt. The French housing at the same fort- interior exterior- was based on what peasants and poor folk lived in back in Europe. They had wooden roofs (in time) so they listed a little longer, but the walls lasted about the same- a few years.

Houses were very very simple affairs well into the 19th century. At the dawn of the Civil War only 20% of the nation lived in houses worth more than $700 (roughly $10,000 to $15,000 in today’s currency). Unless it was specifically said that structures remain standing in the contract when families sold their land and moved on, it was very common for them to first remove any glass windows and then to burn their houses and barns to salvage the nails, hinges, and other metal construction items, because they were by far the most valuable part of the house.

I have ancestors who settled in Alabama in 1820, just after the Creeks left that area following their treaty with Jackson. The land that was squabbled over by their party was that which the Creeks had already plowed and that still had some Creek housing (by that time closer to the log cabins of the whites due to contact). Creeks had almost no concept of privacy or of personal space in housing, and whites only had a small amount more.
Of course the mounds built in Alabama are still doing pretty good a thousand years later, and the stone and brick pyramids and temples and palaces of the Mayans and Aztecs and Incans will be doing good (barring nuclear blasts or whatever) for thousands of years.

Agreed. But, for example, when I was at school in 1962, the chapel in the grounds celebrated its millenium. There are many buildings in the UK going back to the 13th century.

But my question is: are there any buildings surviving that pre date the 17th century in the areas inhabited by the American Indian, and if not why not?

There are lots of them in the Western US. Mesa Verde, for one, was built in the 12th and 13th century.

One important difference is that that chapel was built by Britons and has since been maintained by Britons. In preserving the chapel, they are preserving a part of their history.

The Britons and other Europeans who moved to what is now the Eastern US, on the other hand, had little incentive to preserve American Indian structures. They saw themselves as replacing the American Indians, as building a new history; why should they preserve somebody else’s? And the Indians themselves weren’t given the option to take care of their buildings. So the buildings were neglected and, being built of wood and other organic materials, disappeared.

Maintenance is crucial. Witness how fast the buildings in Pripyat, the village near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, have begun to decay. And those are mostly concrete buildings!

flodnak: so, are you saying that there were buildings when the Europeans arrived that we failed to maintain?

I must say that what ever the reasons that Europeans had for failing to upkeep the American Indians buildings, I somehow feel that the reason that the buildings at Pripyat have started to decay is very different.

Aside from the other building styles mentioned in this thread, there were also wigwams.

Also not very durable structures.

There are lots. In adition to the pueblos and cliff-dwellings, how about the stone pyramids and cities scattered across Central and South America?

And though they are much more famous for mound building (Serpent Mound, for example), the Fort Ancient culture is named for the remains called Fort Ancient in Ohio. Perhaps not a building per se, but a 100 acre complex with 3.5 miles of walls nonetheless.

Yes. We know there were buildings there, and we know they are not there now. Some may have been actively removed, but most probably just rotted away, as wooden buildings will if they are not maintained.

If you drive through the countryside in Norway you will from time to time see abandoned buildings and even entire abandoned farms. The buildings are generally log cabins, quite sturdy structures built to last for decades in a rough climate - but they break down over time.

If you’re thinking about radiation, I wouldn’t swear that has no effect on the concrete. However, most of the decay comes from moisture being allowed to enter the buildings. Even with no radiation, that will happen if relatively small holes in the extenal structures, whether because of natural events like tree roots damaging the foundation or unnatural events like thieves breaking windows and doors to gain entry, are not repaired.

Not pre 1492 but in the U.K. we have a fair number of Cob(mud and dung)thatched houses including Shakespeares SOs.
The reason that there aren’t more is because they tended to get knocked down and newer versions built .

For more sturdier buildings we have stone built buildings with internal flushing toilets in the north of Britain(The Orkney islands )dating from before 2000b.C. ,Stonehenge dating from before 3000B.C.
(and is actually older then the Pyramids)plus we also have a plentitude of Forts and Castles dating from Roman times.

The winner I think has to be in Ireland which is a tomb called (Ironically)
New Grange which makes even Stonehenge look like a nipper.

Some structures were a stick frame with cattail mats for sides.

http://www.uwlax.edu/sociology/Archaeology/students/schultz/

The indigenous people around here are the Chumash, and I dare say, they had a pretty good lifestyle. There was all kinds of easily harvested seafood. We’ve got middens of piled seafood shells and fishbones due to the abundant harvest of the ocean. There were animals and acorns to eat. It was a really great lifestyle for a hunter gatherer. I’ve heard of stories that abalone were like cobblestones coating the sea floor. Even today, I can wander down the pristine beach at Naples (apologies for a cause that is dear to my heart) and pick up edible mollusks. Their houses were domes constructed of wood covered with thatch. They probably did not last much more than 5 or 6 years. But the weather is so mild that shelter is important only during severe winter storms. I could easily camp in my backyard for a year with only a shitty army tent and several blankets.

In any case, life was pretty friggin’ great here for the native Americans until Junipero Serra wandered through. The easily constructed housing here was not particularly permanent, but more than satisfied the need for a roof over one’s head.