Ancient Storage Techniques: How Did People Store Stuff In The Wild?

In today's high tech world we can easily make a distinction between “regular” living and wilderness survival. And we also take many things for granted such as the ability to securely store things for indefinite periods of time is one of them. Temperature control, de-humidification and electronic monitoring are just a few of the conveniences we rarely think about. But, how did our ancestors get the job done? Their day-to-day lives would probably seem like a harsh environment to us. As it turns out, people have been figuring out ways to stash their stuff long before the invention of the walk-in closet. Read-on and maybe the underlying concepts will come in handy one day in the woods.

It is important to realize that storage priorities in antiquity might not always line up with modern necessity. Most ancient Egyptians for instance were not storing extra shoes for a special occasion. For most of humanity's history food storage has been the primary concern; if food could be adequately preserved for long periods of time, episodes of hardship could be balanced by periods of prosperity.

Food Storage

Written techniques for food preservation can be found at least as early as 2000 years ago in Chinese tombs. These texts describe processes for drying and salting various types of foods. Both methods essentially aim to remove moisture from food and inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria that speeds up decomposition and makes food unfit for consumption. While the Chinese were among the first to preserve food in this way, the technique spread rapidly to the rest of the world; salting and drying food as a storage technique occurred later in nearly every ancient civilization.

As with many early technical achievements, the ancients may have been imitating natural processes. People probably noticed that naturally arid or salty conditions desiccated objects. Organic material in these conditions would have lasted much longer and astute early observers must have made note of this. It isn't much of a leap to imagine ancient people imitating many different natural storage processes.

Ancient Grain SiloAncient Grain Silo

It turns out that humans have been thinking about how to keep food fresh in storage since prehistoric times. When people moved from a mobile hunting and gathering society to a stationary culture built on agriculture, food storage became even more important. Sophisticated grain silos have been found dating to around 9000 B.C.E. These complex storage devices seem to be deigned to allow air flow, reduce moisture and prevent rodent infestation. It seems that humans began to figure out how to mimic the natural storage processes found in nature near the very beginning of the transition to an agrarian society.

Underwater Storage

Other researchers have found evidence of underwater storage taking place in North America prior to the extinction of the mastodon when early hunters subsisted largely on meat. To keep the meat fresh, possibly for several years at a time, these hunters secured their catch to the bottom of lakes. They realized that the conditions under water were favorable for long term storage; the cool water slowed natural decomposition.

Water Storage

Water itself was precious and so ancient engineers devised many ingenious ways to store it. The Romans were not the first to build aqueducts but they took the idea of water storage and distribution to new heights. Cities in Rome were some of the first in history to maintain complex plumbing networks. Some cities maintained twenty or more large cisterns, with a total capacity of around 1,750,000 cubic feet. As is the case with long term food storage, water storage on this massive scale meant that people could not only survive, but also thrive in times of limited supply.

Energy Storage

When we think of storage we often think of commodities such as food and water, but one of the most important modern storage needs also posed a challenge for ancient civilizations: energy storage. Energy to make heat and light has been stored by humans as firewood for eons. Ancient civilizations developed many other techniques for storing this type of energy. The ancient Greeks used olive oil. Tribes in Germany as early as the 6th century we using beeswax candles. By the 1700's whale blubber was being used to store energy for lamps on a huge commercial scale.

We rarely consider all of the developments that were necessary to make modern life possible. The ability to make what need in prosperous times and store it for a rainy day is truly one of the most important skills humans have cultivated.

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1 Comment

  1. Really cool stuff. This will make us think twice each time we take the luxuries we have for granted, like the fridge.
    I didn't know that ancient people used to preserve food by putting it under water. Now that's something for the books.
    Thanks for sharing this!

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