Photo Essay | Unusual Indigenous Homes

By Ella Frances Sanders, Illustrator in Residence Share

This week’s photo essay highlights just a few of the fascinating array of indigenous homes found in every corner of the planet. Many are remarkable feats of human ingenuity - beautiful constructions that utilise natural materials from the landscapes where these people live, and each home is uniquely adapted to the environment and climate in which it is situated.

To us at least, these communities often seem remote or even abstract, and it can be difficult to understand what life might be like for these people whose culture seems so different from our own. We recently wrote a post about the age of adventurous empathy and one of the ideas we focused was the importance of fostering a sense of curiosity and of seeking to see the world through another's eyes. We hope that through the stories behind the homes you see below, you will catch a glimmer of what life might be like for some of the isolated tribes and ethnic minorities, who are spread out across the globe in many beautiful and far flung places. It isn't always easy.

This collection contains 20 photographs of these amazing and unusual homes. We’ve tried to relay information about these homes and the people who inhabit them as accurately as possible, but if you have anything to add or amend, please get in touch with us. Many thanks to all the lovely photographers for sharing their compositions.


1 | Stone houses of the Miao tribe in Guizhou, China by Rita Willaert

Although recognised as one of 56 ethnic minority group by the People’s Republic of China, the single term ‘Miao’ does not reflect all of the differences within these component nations, there are often members that are not actually linguistically or culturally related - some do not even agree that they belong to the ethnic group. They live mostly in southern China, although members of the sub-groups (notably Hmong people) have moved to northern Vietnam, Burma (Myanmar), Thailand and Laos.

I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.
— Maya Angelou

2 | Traditional Batak longhouse in Lingga Village, North Sumatra by Solar Piano 

Taken back in 1980, this photograph depicts a traditional Batak longhouse, which certainly has a most remarkably shaped, and really quite impressive roof. Batak is a collective term, identifying a number of ethnic groups predominantly in North Sumatra, Indonesia, and these groups have both related yet distinct customs and languages.

Home is not where you live but where they understand you.
— Christian Morgenstern

3 | Home of the Pai Tavytera Indians in the Amambay Hills, South America by Unknown Photographer

The Pai Tavytera are an indigenous people of Paraguay, primarily living in the Amambay Hills and Mato Grosso do Sul of Brazil. There are over 15 other names for this group of people, who farm (mostly) maize using slash-and-burn agriculture methods, and cultivate plants such as citrus trees, bananas, pineapple, cotton and medicinal plants.

Home is a place you grow up wanting to leave, and grow old wanting to get back to.
— John Ed Pearce

4 | Guaran  í tribes of Paraguay, South America by Unknown Photographer

There are around 46,000 Guaraní living in Brazil today, and nearly half as many again living in neighbouring Paraguay, Bolivia and 
Argentina. 500 years ago were one of the first peoples contacted by the Europeans arriving in South America. Over the last half century they have had devastating problems with outside ranchers and employed gunmen - and many have lost nearly all their land, in most cases to sugar cane plantations. For these deeply spiritual people, it is an ongoing struggle and fight to keep hold of their ancestral lands.

Home is a shelter from storms – all sorts of storms.
— William J. Bennett

5 | Houses of the Akha tribe in Chiang Rai, Thailand by Richard Yu

An indigenous hill tribe living in tiny, high altitude villages of Thailand, Burma, Laos and China. Today there are about 80,000 living in the provinces of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Their homes are traditionally constructed with logs, bamboo and thatch, and are either a ‘low house’ built on the ground or a ‘high house’ on stilts. Entrances to Akha villages have wooden gates, with intricate carvings on both sides of men and women, and these carvings can also be found on the roofs of the villagers' homes.

Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration.
— Charles Dickens

6 | Highland houses of the hill tribes in Papua New Guinea by Dave Yeager

The island of New Guinea is populated by a thousand different tribal groups, with nearly as many languages, being either Papuan languages or Austronesian ones, and as a result it is the most linguistically diverse area in the world. The people and their homes are adapted to high rainfalls and to earthquakes, and were traditionally quite territorial and violent, although in recent years things have been much more peaceful.

Home is where one starts from.
— T. S. Eliot

7 | House of the Mishing tribe in the Brahmaputra Valley in Assam, India by Rob

The Mishing (or Mising) are an ethnic group who live in various parts of the Assam state in India. Historically they were called ‘Miris’, and the Constitution of India still refers to them as this today. As riverine tribes, their houses are traditionally stilted, with thatched roofs and built usually with wooden posts, beams, truss and supporting forks. Rob wrote in the description of his photo, ‘This house is situated on Majuli Island. The boats are left underneath the dwelling in case of flood. Majuli Island suffers from floods every year, so I reckon that's a bit of good planning on their part.’

Where we love is home – home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes

 8 | Village of the Tripuri people in Chittagong, Bangladesh by Ali Morshed Norton

The original inhabitants of the Kingdom of Tripura in northeast India and Bangladesh, these people traditionally live on hillsides in groups of between five and fifty families, building their houses from bamboo, which are raised five or six feet from the group as a measure against wild animals. Today, however, a considerable number of the 950,000 Tripuri’s are living in the plains, and are adopting different methods of cultivation and ways of everyday life.

A house is no home unless it contain food and fire for the mind as well as for the body.
— Margaret Fuller

9 | Ndebele tribes in Loopspruit, Gauteng, South Africa by Unknown Photgrapher

During the 18th century, the Ndebele people of South Africa created their own tradition and style of house painting, which became known as an entire branch of African art. Originally based on their colourful beadwork, the expressive symbols painted by the women were used as communication between sub-groups. They represented cultural resistance and continuity - a secret code to their people. What may appear to be relatively simple bold geometric patterns, is really a complex entanglement of creation and tradition, and the traditions behind these house paintings are still passed down through the generations today.

The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.
— Maya Angelou

10 | Gel (or Yurt) of the nomadic tribes living in the Gobi Desert, Mongolia by Oriel Marshall

These structures are the dwellings of the nomads living on the steppes of Central Asia, and have been a feature of life there for at least three thousand years. Traditionally they consist of a circular frame with a felt cover, and are designed to be easily dismantled and constructed in just 2 hours. They can also be compactly carried by camels or yaks.

You need a village, if only for the pleasure of leaving it. A village means that you are not alone, knowing that in the people, the trees, the earth, there is something that belongs to you, waiting for you when you are not there.
— Cesare Pavese

11 | Reed houses of the Uros tribe on Lake Titicaca, Peru by Dmitry Samsonov

The pre-Incan Uros people live on floating reed islands, constructed using the totora, a type of cattail type reed native to the lake. These islands are protected, and home to between a few hundred and 2,000 Uros (larger islands are home to about 10 families, smaller ones only 2 or 3), who live by fishing, weaving and also through the tourism centered around their unusual homes.

We shape our dwellings, and afterwards our dwellings shape us.
— Winston Churchill

12 | Sami houses in Hardangervidda, Southern Finland by Luis Guillermo Pineda Rodas

The (approximately 80,000) Sami people are the only indigenous people of Scandinavia, and are one of the most diverse indigenous cultures in the world in terms of language, history and culture. They inhabit the Arctic area of Sápmi, which includes parts of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Kola Peninsula of Russia, and their ancestral lands amount to an area about the size of Sweden. It seems that their homes can vary hugely depending not only on where they live, but also the time of year and also their occupation (around 10 per cent are still connected to semi-nomadic reindeer herding).

The farther away, the closer the home becomes.
— Dejan Stojanovic

13 | Hmong people living in Sa Pa, Vietnam by Famke Veenstra

There seems to be some confusion/controversy over the term ‘Hmong’, but essentially they are an ethnic subgroup of the Miao (also see the first photo and description in this essay) and these people number between 4 and 5 million. They live in the mountainous regions of not only Vietnam but also China, Laos and Thailand. They are known to be fiercely independent, and their culture is rich - full of art, dress, family life, martial history and religion. Their houses are traditionally built on hillsides with split bamboo, although today newer homes can be made of wood with tin or tile roofs, and sometimes with the relative luxury of a cement floor.

There is no place more delightful than one’s own fireplace.
— Marcus T. Cicero

14 | Daasanach tribe houses in Southern Ethiopia by Stefan Cruysberghs  

Stefan took this photo near the tiny village of Omorate in southern Ethiopia, and in his description wrote that he ‘crossed the Omo river with a dugout canoe to visit a village of the Dassanech/Daasanach tribe. The Dassanech are agro-pastoral people and they build simple igloo huts with wood and corrugated iron plates.’

Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.
— Robert Frost

15 | Masaai tribe hut in the Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya by Nick Constantinou

We loved this photo of a traditional Maasai hut in Kenya, which would most likely be one of between 8 and 15 huts in the Maasai village. Their homes (known as a ‘kraal’) are surrounded by fences made of thorn bushes, acting as protection for them and their animals against enemies.

One returns to the place one came from.
— Jean de La Fontaine

16 | Masaai women in a traditional Boma near Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania by Mario Moreno

It seems impossible to resist including Mario’s wonderful shots in our photo essays whenever they seem applicable. This one captures Maasai women doing beadwork inside a traditional boma - the name for the collection of huts. By selling their beadwork, masks and carving to passing travellers/tourists the Maasai can supplement their income.

People usually are the happiest at home.
— William Shakespeare

17 | Homes of the Bajau Laut tribes of Semporna, Malaysia by Keris Tuah 

Sometimes referred to as the ‘sea gypsies’, the Bajau Laut people are known for their seafaring skills, and for years they have lived out in the ocean on makeshift houseboats, although more recently some have built their homes slightly closer to land, on stilts. Their main source of income comes from the sea, and the fish, mussels and clams that they catch and sell - some even make their living through pearl farming in more remote places.

The farther away, the closer the home becomes.
— Dejan Stojanovic

18 | Bedouin tents in the Syrian Desert by Kok Leng Yeo

The Bedouin are part of a (mostly) desert-dwelling Arabian ethnic group, who in many places have adapted to harsh desert conditions, walking with their herds through the desert to wherever the grass grows. They still live in tents much like in years before, usually woven from goat’s hair. Even when unbearably hot on the outside, the inside of the tent stays relatively cool, and in cold weather the reverse is true and a fire inside keeps it comfortably warm.

Home is everything you can walk to.
— Jerry Spinelli

19 | Anuak tribe village in the Omo Valley, Ethiopia by Eric Lafforgue

Eric wrote a fascinating and informative description alongside his photo: ‘Anuak people are an ethnic group living on the banks of rivers both in western Ethiopia (mainly in the Gambella province) and southeastern Sudan. They are about 100,000 to 150,000. Their lifestyle is based on cattle raising and farming. Their darker skin, their different culture and language (which is a nilo saharan language, different from most of the omotic languages of the other ethiopian ethnic groups), and the fact that they are considered as ‘lowlanders’ (in opposition with most of the ethnic groups of Ethiopia considered as ‘highlanders’ make them rather different from most of the other ethiopian ethnic groups they live with.’

Home is where somebody notices when you are no longer there.
— Aleksandar Hemon

20 | Korowai tree houses in West Papua, Indonesia by George Steinmetz

We included these incredible structures of the Korowai people in one of our previous photo essays, and have enjoyed learning more about these incredible people since. Especially the fascinating process of construction used to build their homes, which range in height from 6 to 12 meters, and are usually built around a single tree - although they can reach up to an unbelievable 35 meters above the ground.

Home is where my habits have a habitat.
— Fiona Apple

We hope you enjoyed exploring these intriguing abodes around the world. If you feel so inclined please tweet this post and @mention any curious friends who you think might enjoy it too.

Before you leave us here a couple of our other popular posts we think you will enjoy perusing.


Wanderlove - if this photo essay doesn't make you want to go out and explore the wilderness we don't know what will...

Al Humphreys in Iceland -  Al once described himself as, 'a normal bloke with a mildly interesting story' - we'll let you decide...


Date added
Location Taghazout, Morocco