Assume we have an Earth-like environment.

If a tribe with only early medieval technology were to settle in a mountain environment:

  • What resources would be needed to deal with the elevation, cold, and other hazards?

  • What resources are they likely to have available?

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ The Incas lived in the Andes mountains. You can maybe research a little about what they did to adapt? $\endgroup$
    – Ian
    May 5, 2016 at 18:37
  • $\begingroup$ Finally found the oldest question on this SE site =) $\endgroup$
    – Alastor
    May 30, 2023 at 7:27

4 Answers 4


This is a scenario which has occurred in many parts of the world, so it is not difficult to find some examples for this. As I'm myself from a mountainous area (rural Switzerland), which until a couple of decades ago still was very underdeveloped, I can tell you of a couple of problems and how people dealt with it:

  • Winter problems: Yes there is snow and ice and the like, but people would usually be able to cope with this. What this means is that one needs to store food for long winters (usually in barns) and that there's an increased risk of avalanches. Usually avalanches follow the same paths (given the topography of the terrain), so people would usually know through knowledge of past avalanches where it is safe to build houses and where it is not.

    To illustrate this, consider the picture below, which I took from a village in the Saas valley. You can see that the village forms a quite narrow stripe, this is a zone that people knew was safe, whereas in the front and at the back are areas where there can be avalanches in some years. Also building below other houses provides extra protection from the houses above "breaking" the avalanche.

Picture illustrating construction of villages protecting from avalanches.

  • Food. Usually you can't grow all plants in higher altitudes, due to lower temperatures and shorter growing seasons. In the cases I know this means no fruit trees, no wheat, no Mediterranean vegetables like tomatoes or peppers. They used to grow root vegetables, potatoes (they didn't have those in medieval times of course) and as a cereal rye.

    A lot of the food was meat-based, probably mostly sheep and goats, as they are perfect and can roam the higher altitude areas in the summer so that the agriculture area in the lower valley can be used to grow grass to store for winter and vegetables for food.

    There is ample supply of berries and mushroom. Wild animals that can be hunted include deer, ibex, marmots, and wolves. More exotic food sources involve pine cones and thistles.

    The fact that mountainous areas are usually far from big lakes or oceans makes fish almost unknown in those areas. A lot of people used to have goitre from the resulting iodine deficiency, which also causes cretinism.

  • Transportation. Roads were too expensive to be built anywhere but on important trade routes. The mode of transport of choice was mostly the mule.

    This also meant that to get around inside the area, people had to carry most of the stuff themselves. (Example of how this was done)

  • Isolation. Coming with the lack of transportation came a relative isolation as the next bigger town could be many days away by walking. This has several consequences on the inhabitants.

    The inhabitants don't get much contact with people from elsewhere, which probably led to the population being more traditional and conservative. Which is demonstrated in various mountain valley peoples, who seem to be more religious and pious.

    On a more serious level, the isolation also leads to a reduced gene pool and the limited choice of people to marry would lead to some degree of incest and inbreeding over time.

    On a ecological level, the geographic isolation could lead to endemic variations of animals or plants. (Some examples from Switzerland for animals)

I think overall one can say that living in those times wasn't easy in mountainous areas and the people living there would have to be hard-working people, rather poor (except if there's mines maybe) and very used to losing people in accidents or natural disasters (as @Styphon mentioned).

Disclaimer: This is based on Middle European mountain areas, this will heavily depend on climatic zone and altitude. Tropical areas on the same altitude will be very different for instance, as will Arctic areas.


The human body would adapt and deal with elevation. Many top athletes often train at high altitudes to help train their bodies to absorb oxygen more efficiently from the thinner air.

If the terrain was pure mountains then the ability to adapt to the local geography would be key. Natural shelters in the forms of caves for early survival, though a medieval culture would be able to extend and possibly even create man-made caves for habitation over time. This will help them deal with the cold and natural predators as our, and their ancestors did. Fires at the entrance to the cave would ward off predators and help keep the cold at bay.

The most significant hazards would be natural. Snow and ice would create dangerous living and working conditions. The constant need for food would also be a source of difficulty, with meat being a large part of the diet. For the survival of a large settlement, farming is necessary, though in mountains this will be near impossible limiting settlements to a small size.

Cave ins, earth quakes, avalanches, all sorts of natural disasters would affect their daily lives. We struggle to deal with these in this day and age. They would simply be a fact of life for those in the medieval age that they had to contend with and get through. Any one serious act could end the settlement though.


The greatest killer in the mountains is exposure. Your tribe would need to find a way to stay warm and dry (or if desert mountains then cool). Caves provide good shelter; however, if they intend to stay there for much longer then more permanent structures are possible.

The nature of a more permanent shelter depends on the local materials and the scarcity of other natural resources. If there is plenty of food and water nearby then a tribe will most likely build permanent settlements out of local stone (you need to consider what these mountains are made from: sandstone? slate?).

If however food is sparse or water is rare then it is likely that a group of people would adopt a more nomadic lifestyle — as they cannot guarantee they will find shelter each night tents, teepees or yurts would be carried along with the tribe. These would most likely be constructed from the natural materials around them such as wood and skins.

Finally to address your final point about elevation (I assume you mean altitude rather than gradient). The human body typically starts displaying symptoms of altitude sickness around 4000 m above sea level. However the severity of the symptoms are usually influenced by the body's normal altitude. There is evidence that humans who have always lived at high altitude are less effected by it than those who are more accustomed to sea level. Symptoms are often reduced by basic acclimatisation. A tribe climbing to these altitudes over a number of days or weeks would likely not suffer much more than a little breathlessness.


Can't think of early Medieval examples, but here's an example of hunter-gatherers living in mountains: http://research.amnh.org/anthropology/research/naa/alta_toquima

In the Great Basin of western North America, the mountains are often much more hospitable than the valleys, as they catch the limited precipitation and store it as snowpack. Animals (and presumably humans) tend to change elevation with the seasons, migrating to the valleys in the winter.

One of the major food sources for early people in this area was the pine nut, the seeds of several species of pinyon pine, which only grows well at elevations between 6–9 thousand ft (1800–2800 m).


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