I was roleplaying with my siblings, and one of them had selected the Shaman Class I devised. A Shaman's power over the elements comes from their connection to said elements, so their place of origin determines what elements they can control.

As a joke, since this sibling had selected the Island background and the Earth & Air Elements, I told him that he had grown up in a very small village out on a barren, windswept rock out in the middle of an ocean. He laughed, and we went on with things, but lately I've been thinking about the feasibility of living in such a way.

First up, I know something of how islands form. Even out in the ocean, isolated islands of rock are slowly but surely colonized by plants as they break down into sand. This makes what I'm thinking of-a huge, brown, rough square of stone protruding from the ocean like a floating brick-seem unlikely at best.

Secondly, temperature extremes. Even accounting for how water tends to moderate temperatures, rock is horrible in this category. People cook on sun-heated rocks, and as any camper will tell you, after dark the Earth loses heat and becomes cold very quickly. This would seem to make the island inhospitable.

Thirdly, food. I'm not sure this will be a problem, actually, as the sea can be a reliable source of both meat and veggies (Japan indicates seafood can sustain life, and seaweed is another viable source of nutrition). Summed up, my question is: Can Humans Survive On A Barren Rock?

Namely, can a group of humans, limited to medieval technology, survive on a barren, windswept rock out in the middle of the ocean?

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    $\begingroup$ The limiting factor isn't food... as you point out, if they have the ability to fish, they'll have all they need. Fuel becomes a problem, there are no trees for firewood. Possibly whale oil is something of a substitute, but whaling requires an enormous investment in infrastructure, and again they don't have the wood for that. I don't think this is viable, but for lumber. Solve that problem somehow, and there's nothing stopping it. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Oct 25 '21 at 15:23

There are many many examples of humans living in desolate places; Skellig Michael, Boreray, Bouvet, Tristan, even Rockall.

Skellig Michael Boreray Bouvet Tristan Rockall

Rockall, in the last pic, is about as close to your ideal as you can get. In 1985 a man spent 40 days there. In 1997 Greenpeace occupied it for 42 days. In 2013 a man spent 45 days there. Even this tiny, desolate rock, having absolutely no resources for humans, can be lived on.

Food, as you noted, is not a big problem. To quote wiki on Skellig Michael:

"It has been estimated that no more than twelve monks and an abbot lived at the monastery at any one time.[42] The monastery was continuously occupied until the late 12th or early 13th century2 and remained a site for pilgrimage through to the modern era. The diet of the island monks was somewhat different from that of those on the mainland. With less arable land available to grow grain, vegetable gardens were an important part of monastic life. Of necessity, fish and the meat and eggs of birds nesting on the islands were staples."

Water can certainly be a problem depending on the size of the island, the size of the population, the climate, geography, and distance to other islands. Since your question asserts that such an island exists, we can conclude that the population isn't so large as to overwhelm what nature can provide, and the geography and climate are suitably favorable - or that the village trade with others to acquire something to drink (perhaps not necessarily water, maybe ale). The previously mentioned Skellig Michael included a cistern to store water.

The next issue is building materials and fuel for fires. Again, the solution is much the same, either there is enough on the island, or it needs to be traded for. Easter Island is a classic example of what can happen if there isn't enough wood. Stone can always be used as a building material, the Skelligs are a prime example of this being done.

In summary, it's absolutely possible. I think trade with the outside world to acquire wood will be pressing. Perhaps the shamans of the rock can provide magical services, such as keeping storms and sea serpents away from the mainland, in exchange for a tribute of wood.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks! I feel this answer covers all the issues necessary to ensure a sustainable population and make this a viable background, so I'll use this and the excellent points covered in all the others as well. $\endgroup$
    – Alendyias
    Oct 28 '21 at 0:49

Not really, unless they are very lucky. Even though they might feed on something they catch in the waters in the immediate vicinity of the barren rock (but it is not a given, see how the inhabitants of Bikini struggled to keep their fishing habits once they were relocated to another atoll) they will surely suffer the lack of fresh water.

In most of the climates rain will not be so frequent to constantly supply them with water, and even if the barren rock is in a region with frequent precipitations, they would need something to harvest and store the rain water: laying on the ground with open mouth can harvest not much water.

And don't forget climate: with no shelter, cold or scorching heat can easily debilitate a body, increasing the needed food intake in a situation where available food is limited.

There are historic example in an less extreme situation, with the whaleship Essex.

On December 20, exactly one month after the whale attack, and within hours of the crew beginning to die of thirst, the boats landed on uninhabited Henderson Island, a small uplifted coral atoll within the modern-day British territory of the Pitcairn Islands. The men incorrectly believed that they had landed on Ducie Island, a similar atoll 220 miles (350 km) to the east. Had they landed on Pitcairn Island itself, 120 miles (190 km) to the southwest, they might have received help; the descendants of the survivors of HMS Bounty, who had famously mutinied in 1789, still lived there.

On Henderson Island, Essex's crew found a small freshwater spring below the tideline and the starving men gorged themselves on endemic birds, crabs, eggs, and peppergrass. After just one week, they had largely exhausted the island's food resources. On 26 December, they concluded they would starve if they remained much longer. As most of the crew prepared to set sail in the whaleboats once again, three men – William Wright, Seth Weeks, and Thomas Chapple, the only white members of the crew who were not natives of Nantucket – opted to stay behind on Henderson. Almost a year after Essex sank, Lloyd's List reported that Surry had rescued the three men and taken them to Port Jackson, Australia.

If you check the images from the satellite, you see the island is not barren, yet they struggled.

Also one of the hypothesis on the disappearance of Amelia Earhart postulate she landed on an atoll and died there. Also in this case the island has some vegetation growing on it.

  • $\begingroup$ Okay, so must account for water and shelter. Aside from that, they can survive off the sea right? Thanks for your answer, it really helped! $\endgroup$
    – Alendyias
    Oct 25 '21 at 12:28

It's a Funny Shaped Rock...

The two key things you need are: a water source and building materials. Each influences the shape of the island and it's surroundings.


Easiest way to get water on a remote island is elevation change - the air is forced up by the landmass, cools, and causes rain. Think Hawaii and it's lush, volcanic mountains.

To fit the "small" requirement you might want something that's more like a karst tower - the island is leftover from a previous larger landmass, and its edges are all tall, vertical cliff faces.

Building Material

The people will need some raw materials to build clothing, homes, boats, tools, etc. The best inspiration here might be Inuits - the Arctic is pretty sparse in terms of building materials, but they made it work.

This population will hunt for large, aquatic mammals - think seal, walrus, and/or whale - and use their carcass to make basically everything from bones knives to skin boats to leather tents and water jugs.

Seals and sea lions sit on rocks to regulate temperature, so if the barren, protruding island is one of many rocks in the area, and the other rocks are basically at the water line, these animals might spend a lot of time near the island, and the population could hunt them from boats.

Killer whales also hunt seals, so the population could also hunt those whales.

So to make this work, you'd need a massive tower of rock jutting from inhospitable, rocky waters, full of a bounty of seals and lurking killer whales.

Sounds like a pretty cool back story.

  • $\begingroup$ Very thorough, nice answer! But...how would you get down and back up again if you live on a rock tower? $\endgroup$
    – Alendyias
    Oct 25 '21 at 17:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Alendyias - the cheat answer is you have three vertical sides and one gentle slope. Otherwise, to keep the atmosphere of "austere and awesome," you could carve staircases into the cliff face and use a whalebone-crane for heavy lift. :-) $\endgroup$
    – codeMonkey
    Oct 25 '21 at 17:26
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, genius! After all, sharp edges aren't very common in nature..... $\endgroup$
    – Alendyias
    Oct 25 '21 at 17:28

Could've been a port village, kept alive by trade and acting as a pit-stop for ships and sailors. Around the island may have been reefs and such which may be able to keep a small village alive but the lack of building materials make this a hard ask, which is why it may have been established way back as an in-between point and the structures on it were built with imported/transported wood.

Alternatively whatever building materials they did have were obtained from shipwreck materials washing up on the island due to ocean currents, but how the locals survived until they obtained the wood(due to the sun and such constantly beating down on them) is going to be hard to explain convincingly.

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    $\begingroup$ Great ideas, thanks and welcome to the site! I'll probably put that they were shipwrecked on the rock and went from there. $\endgroup$
    – Alendyias
    Oct 25 '21 at 12:29
  • $\begingroup$ Pitcairn was colonized by the crew of Bounty and their Tahitian wives after their mutiny, but it was far from bare rock. It has small forests, fresh water, and one viable port where the colonists subsisted by fishing until they were (re)discovered by passing ships and became a resupply point, trading fish and vegetables for things they couldn't make. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Oct 25 '21 at 13:23

If the Inuit can live on ice then your rock sounds like a paradise.

You would need a source of fresh water: either a large enough land area to collect fresh water, or someplace cold enough for year round ice to be available. Otherwise people can live in surprisingly hostile conditions.

For a surprisingly similar locale, check out South Georgia, which is basically barren (it does have some grasses and sea birds) and supports a very small human population. Most people only live there seasonally, but the British Antarctic Survey supports ~10 people there year round.


Not a full answer, just a pictorial comment on part of your question: (otherwise I would have made it a comment only)

In your question you mention:

Even out in the ocean, isolated islands of rock are slowly but surely colonized by plants as they break down into sand. This makes what I'm thinking of-a huge, brown, rough square of stone protruding from the ocean like a floating brick-seem unlikely at best.

Let me introduce you to the Island of Rockall:
Claimed by the UK, claim denied by everyone else even though they don't want it for themselves either.
enter image description here

It stands a magnificent 17m tall, and not much more that that in length or width.
Yet the nearest inhabited spot of land is 370km away over the Atlantic.

Could anyone live on it?
enter image description here
No, No they could not! That's MEAN MOTHER OCEAN out there.

  • $\begingroup$ Sure, they could. They'd just need to build wave breakers to make a harbor around the island so that their house doesn't get washed away. $\endgroup$
    – nick012000
    Oct 26 '21 at 1:23
  • $\begingroup$ @nick012000 within 50m of the shore, water depth reaches 100m. Building a wave barrier would be like building a wave barrier for a deepsea oil rig. Not exactly impossible, but it would require several times more material than the entire abovewater volume of the island. $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Oct 26 '21 at 6:03

Yes, of course.

There are tons of historical examples of peoples making homes for themselves in places that are practically barren islands - lots and lots and lots of whaling villages fit this description.

Running water helps a lot but if the sea around you has some particularly desirable resource, like say pearls or whale oil, you can easily trade for the supplies you'd need - and trade doesn't really need to be all that frequent, as you note, man can live off the fruit of the ocean alone.

The big issue is fresh water - but a simple crystal ball can solve this for you, for a small village. Crystal balls can actually be quite good at focusing sunlight to make heat, and could be used to boil water. They are also relatively low tech to produce, and so will fit naturally into most settings. Fancier methods of doing the same thing, such as lenses or mirrors, are of course also an option, should they make more sense in your setting.

If you want the island to be truly and completely self sufficient, that gets much more challenging, but if you just want a narratively justifiable small village on a barren rock, this is most certainly achievable.

  • To have a village, you'd need buidling materials, so rock breaking into nice slabs would be ideal. The houses will essentially be rock-igloos, with the odd whalebone as structural support, and hides for creature-comforts like doors and windows -- or maybe the whole upper layer of the island is just a maze of natural tunnels in prorous rock, layered on an erosion-resistant slab of granite?
  • You'll have no big boats, as there are no trees, but you could build some skiffs from the hide and bones of whales, or even just raftlike structures from the bladders and hides of fish, which you could use to forage around the island.
  • There is lots of edible algae, so let's give the island a patch of those nearby, this will balance the diet quite a bit.
  • You have no real artificial source of heat (whale-oil not being plentiful enough for heating, just lighting and cooking), so you either have your islanders wrapped in seal-furs, or get the island to a very temperate zone.
  • The freshwater problem needs to be adressed very thoroughly, as there can be no lapse in freshwater supply. Luckily there is multiple options: Small natural cavities that store plentiful intermittent rainfalls, a setting so far north that there is an unending supply in drifting ice, a species of marine animal or plant that stores freshwater, or daily, absolutely dependable rains that can be captured using hides.
  • the island does not need to be situated in an inhospitable climatic zone to be barren and windswept: If it is small enough, even lush vegetation in a tropic setting would be scoured by human acitvity over the decades. A shrub is trampled, dies, the topsoil stabilised by it is swept away into the sea by rain and wind, and you have just reversed a century of slow buildup for that spot(rinse(literally), repeat). Perhaps they have one remnant, like a bonsai citrus tree, that is venerated and lovingly tended.(Yeah, Waterworld-trope, i know)
  • If the surrounding biome is interesting enough, the islanders might even be able to accumulate a surplus that they can then trade for any other civilizational resource that features into the characters backstory - there is plenty of marine products that are worth a lot - whale-perfume, mother-of-pearl - pearls, shark-hide, diverse dyes from small critters, amber, poisons, ...
  • The wind-swept aspect of the description neccessitates big-ish waves in the surrounding ocean, which you either temper by having a submerged ring (coral? caldera(the island then is a volcanic cone inside that caldera)?) surrounding the island, or lean into by having the wind blow near-exclusively from one direction and have the island formed like a horseshoe, with a sheltered haven.

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