What if our greatest design innovations aren’t sparkly Silicon Valley exports but ingenious ideas plucked from indigenous history? Modern technology has bolstered human comfort, no question, but it has also solved problems by creating new, arguably larger problems. For all the relief air conditioning brings us, for example, scientists warn that cooling the interiors of our homes, cars and offices only makes the world hotter. That’s not entirely comforting.

Is there a way to marry innovation with sustainability? Yes, and some cultures figured out how to do it millennia ago.

“Lo—TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism,” by Julia Watson, delves into some of the spectacular ways indigenous groups work with the environment, rather than against it, to make life more livable.

“Indigenous technologies are not lost or forgotten, only hidden by the shadow of progress in the remotest places on earth,” Watson explains. “While society values and preserves the architectural artifacts of dead cultures, like the four-thousand-year-old Pyramids of Giza, the living are displaced, like the six-thousand-year-old floating island technology of the Ma’dan in the southern wetlands of Iraq.”

The Ma’dan population is dwindling, but their floating islands offer clues for architects who are puzzling out how coastal communities in the future might withstand the inevitable rise of sea levels. In addition to constructing houses in what might look like an uninhabitable region, the Ma’dan build them entirely from “a single, local, inexpensive, and flexible material,” writes Watson, and without wood, nails or glass. Their dwellings consist solely of a bamboo-like reed that’s ubiquitous in the area. Granite countertops aren’t an option, but the homes can be taken down and reconstructed in less than a day — a boon when waters begin to rise and residents need to quickly find higher ground.

The Ma’dan is just one of the cultures that “Lo-TEK” explores in fascinating detail, spotlighting innovations that have been overlooked or belittled as “primitive.” Here’s a look at a handful of other ways indigenous people have used nature to their advantage without taking nature for granted.

Stephanie Merry is the editor of Book World.

Lo—TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism

By Julia Watson

TASCHEN.
420 pp. $50