Subterranean Earthsick Clues: If Climate Change Forces Us Underground

Global warming may eventually force Homo sapiens to again seek cover from the elements. A global tour of the history of humans living underground.

Cave Hohler Fels in the Swabian Alps
Cave Hohler Fels in the Swabian Alps

BERLIN — Be it ancient tombs, homes, abandoned mines, sanctuaries or shopping malls, humans have always been inventive when it comes to settling in underground spaces. But increasing rates of environmental disasters have raised fears of an impending climate cataclysm — and the prospect of humans forced to live below ground. Here are nine examples of our collective subterranean past that could inform our future:

GERMANY — Cave Hohler Fels in the Swabian Alps

When the first Homo sapiens took over Northern-Central Europe more than 40,000 years ago, they found shelter in caves. For the people of the Upper Paleolithic, these dwellings not only provided protection from the inhospitable climate of the later Ice Age, but also became important cultural hubs for the hunter-gatherers. In 2008, historians discovered one of the oldest representations of the human body ever discovered in a cave named Hohler Fels in the Swabian Alb: A goddess figurine carved out of mammoth ivory dubbed the "Venus of Hohle Fels". They also uncovered an almost entirely preserved flute made out of vulture bone, believed to be one of the first musical instruments ever found. To date, 80,000 stone tools and up to 300 pieces of jewelry have been recovered from the cave of Hohler Fels, which measures 500 square meters.

TURKEY — Cappadocia cities

According to the Greek historian Xenophon from the 4th century BC, in Cappadocia, the center of today's Anatolia, "the houses were under the earth," and to access them the "people descended on ladders." Even animals found a refuge here. When Christianity came to Asia Minor in the first century, believers in the remote region found these houses ideal as the rock was easy to work with, enabling whole cities to emerge underground. They were hidden and easy to defend thanks to their widely ramified labyrinths closed with stones. Numerous monasteries and about 3000 churches were carved here, and the caves remained sanctuaries until the Turkish invasion in the 11th century.

Cappadocia caves

Cappadocia underground city (Turkey) — Photo: Pxhere

ITALY — Roman catacombs

The underworld was a fearful place for the ancient Greeks and Romans — it was darkness and death down there. For certain religious communities in the Empire, this made it an attractive place to bury their dead. Following the example of the Jews, Christians in the second century began digging tunnels, now reaching a total length of 170 kilometers, into the soft rock outside the gates of Rome. Archeologists count 60 catacombs in which about 850,000 parishioners were buried. Since the graves were regularly visited by relatives, these tunnels saw plenty of activity. There were even churches and meeting rooms for worship built down there, where mourning ceremonies following funerals took place.

Roman catacombs

Saint Sebastian Roman catacombs (Italy) — Photo:

ITALY — Rocks of Matera

Italy's Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi once described it as a "national disgrace" and writer Carlo Levi even compared the "Sassi di Matera" with the "funeral hell of Dante". Over millions of years, the Gravina River had dug a deep gorge into the landscape of southern Italy's Basilicata. Over thousands of years, the caves of this gorge have been transformed into a unique urban landscape, with houses, apartments and churches. However, poverty and intolerable sanitary conditions prevailed, which is why De Gasperi resettled the residents in the 1950s. Since then, the caves have experienced an astonishing rise in tourism, making the UNESCO World Heritage Site list in 1993. Matera is this year's European Capital of Culture.

AUSTRALIA — Coober Pedy

The landscape in this part of South Australia looks like it has been ransacked by giant moles. You can see mounds everywhere. Coober Pedy is sometimes referred to as the opal capital of the world, as ninety-five percent of the world's opals come from Australia and a good deal are from Coober Pedy. Here, temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius are not uncommon, so the small town has mainly expanded underground. First opal is mined, then the corridors and shafts dug into the stone are converted into houses and apartments. An underground house costs about as much as an above ground one. The advantage, however, is that the cave dwelling has natural air conditioning.

Coober Pedy

Coober Pedy underground church (Australia) — Photo: A. v. Z.

CHINA — Nuclear bunkers

The 60s were a time of nuclear war hysteria. The Chinese, for example, were particularly afraid of the Soviets, building a vast underground network of tunnels and open spaces between 1969 and 1979 to protect the inhabitants of Beijing. The network was meant to cover an area of ​​85 square kilometers, and the Chinese regime claimed that the facilities could hold all of the then six million residents, housing them for months in an emergency. The complex was equipped with restaurants, clinics, schools, theaters, factories and a roller-skating rink, as well as mushroom-growing areas. It has been closed down for renovation since 2008.

FINLAND — Safe swimming pool

In Helsinki you can swim many meters underground. The Itäkeskus swimming pool is one of at least 400 buildings carved into the granite stone below the Finnish capital, in addition to parking garages, metro tunnels, and kilometers of pathways connecting the subterranean buildings. And it doesn't stop there — an ice rink, a church, a bus station and an art museum were also built in the depths of the city. But no one is actually meant to live under the Earth here. The first underground buildings in Helsinki were constructed in the 1960s, and many more were built in the 1970s and 1980s, a time when inhabitants were seeking protection from any potential Soviet invasion.

Finland swimming pool

The Itäkeskus swimming pool in Helsinki (Finland) — Photo: HKP Architects

CANADA — Montreal underground mall

It is called the "Ville intérieure" and is the largest underground city in the world with a tunnel system of 32 kilometers in length. When winter temperatures in Montreal, Canada, drop to minus 20 degrees Celsius, residents like to escape to this underground system of shops, hotels, cafes, theaters, cinemas and more. The original idea comes from urban planner Vincent Ponte, and was built between 1962 to 1992. So far, 80% of the city's office buildings and 40% of its shops are connected via this underground network. Universities, subway stations, an ice hockey stadium and more have also been integrated into the system. The nightlife in Montreal, ironically, is completely above ground.

MEXICO — Earthscraper

In 2009, the experimental architectural firm BNKR Arquitectura presented an "Earthscraper" to Mexico City. As the name implies, the building is the antagonist of the skyscraper. The building is supposed to reach 300 meters deep into the earth, and would be located in the Plaza de la Constitución, one of the largest squares in the world. This form of architecture avoids a serious problem: creating living spaces without affecting the surrounding historical buildings. The "Earthscraper" was planned as a reverse pyramid with a central cavity, so that even lower areas would be supplied with daylight. The base will be closed with a glass plate to guarantee that the above ground space is walkable.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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