Prehistory to Early Civilizations
Paintings of Anubis, Tomb of Pa-schedu, Thebes, c
. 1500 B.C.E.
Images of Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the dead, stand guard on simulated doors on either side of the passage leading to the inner chamber where the sarcophagus stood. The ceiling is covered with hieroglyphic inscriptions. While the intentions are mystical, the form and color generate spaces with richly decorative character typical of ancient Egyptian art.
Living in the modern, technologically advanced world, we take it for granted that a major portion of our time is spent inside, or “indoors.” We live in houses or apartments, we work in offices, shops, or factories, we study in schools and colleges, we eat in restaurants, we stay in hotels, and we travel inside automobiles, buses, trains, ships, and airplanes. To be outside is most often a temporary situation while traveling from one inside space to another. Human beings differ from other living creatures in this acceptance of inside space as the most usual environment for living everyday life.
There have been human beings on earth for about 1.7 million years. The detailed record of events and developments that we call “history” stretches back for only about six or seven thousand years. Before the beginning of history we have only myths, legends, and guesswork to tell us what events occurred and in what order. Thus the questions of when and where people first learned to use shelters, and what the earliest shelters were like, have long been the subject of much speculation.
Guesswork is aided in some measure by information that comes from two lines of inquiry. These deal with, on the one hand, prehistoric remains of various kinds known to archeologists and, on the other hand, with the current or recent practices of the “primitive” peoples usually studied by anthropologists. Prehistoric materials are physical objects, artifacts, or structures that date from times before the beginning of the recorded history of the regions where they exist. The term “primitive,” as used here, does not signify simple, crude, or inferior, but refers to peoples, cultures, or civilizations untouched by the modern technological world as it has developed during the few thousands of years for which we have detailed history.
The First Shelters
It is reasonable to assume that the first shelters were either found—caves, for example—or were made with materials that were easy to work with bare hands or with very simple tools. Although the term “cave men” is often used to describe early human beings, and while there is certainly evidence that ancient people made use of caves, it is unlikely that caves were the most widely used of early human living places. Caves exist only in certain places and their number is limited, nor are they particularly comfortable or attractive places to live. While the famous cave paintings at Chauvet (1.2
), Lascaux, and Altamira clearly prove that early peoples used these caves, there is no certainty that they were dwelling places. Perhaps they were emergency shelters, places for special rites or ceremonies, or they may have been used for the works of art that we admire because they preserved them from the weather.
Lion Panel, Chauvet cave, Ardèche, France. 15,000–10,000 B.C.E.
Evidence of human occupancy of caves comes from paintings that were made with only fire-light as illumination. The intention of the paintings was probably not to ornament or decorate the natural spaces of the caves, but rather to provide images that might grant mystical power over hunted animals. To the modern viewer, the paintings have the effect of making the natural caves into spaces under some degree of human control.
Constructed shelters from prehistory have survived only where they were made from durable materials. The most available and easy to work materials—twigs and branches, leaves, rushes and similar plant materials, and animal materials such as skins or hides—are all short-lived, subject to decay and disappearance within relatively brief time spans. Inorganic materials such as mud or (in cold climates) snow have limited lasting qualities, while stone, although very durable, is so difficult to work as to have had very limited possibilities for shelter building. These realities mean that the materials surviving from prehistoric times are largely small objects of stone such as arrowheads and spear points, or large arrangements of stones set up in patterns or assembled into structures.
Dolmens and Barrows
The arrangements of stones called Alignments and the Dolmens of Brittany (France) and other European locations are thoughtfully designed structures dating from prehistoric times. Most speculations assume that the larger sites, such as Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in Britain, were used for ceremonies or rituals connected with observation of astronomical movements; dolmens are more often linked to burial rites. The arrangement of a large stone placed on top of two or three upright stones that makes up the many dolmens seems to have created the inner chamber of a tomb that took the form of an artificial hill. Where the earth has eroded away, the stone dolmen remains. Where the earth is still in place, it forms the kind of tomb called a Barrow in England. It is possible to go into the interior chambers of some of these surviving tombs. They are dark, mysterious, and often impressive, if only for their evocation of unimaginably ancient origins. In some of these structures, it is possible to see carved or incised patterns cut into the stones with patterns of beauty, although their meanings are unknown.
Estimating dates for prehistoric sites was a matter of guesswork until the fairly recent development of the technique of radio-carbon dating, in which measurements of the radioactivity of organic materials (such as bones or shells) gives a measure of their age. Stonehenge (1.3
) is now dated with some confidence at about 2750–1500 B.C.E. All such structures date from the era now designated as the stone age in reference to the fact that the most advanced technologies of those times involved the working of stone as the best, most lasting, and most effective of available materials. For many parts of the ancient world, the stone age extended to c
. 4000 B.C.E., after which the working of metals became the determining feature of many human civilizations. However, in areas such as northern Europe, the working of stone continued to be the predominant aspect of civilization up until c
. 1000 B.C.E.
Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England, c
. 2750–1500 B.C.E.
Huge stones were carefully placed to create interior spaces with a strong aesthetic impact, whether they were originally open to the sky (as now) or roofed with materials that have since disappeared. The purpose seems to have been connected with rituals relating to the movements of the sun, moon, and stars. The circular form is characteristic of many ancient human constructions.
It is virtually certain that the lack of houses surviving from these times can be explained by the use of less-lasting materials, but that can in turn be explained in part by the reality that such ancient human life patterns were generally migratory or at least unattached to fixed locations. Early human life depended on water sources, hunting, and food gathering for sustenance and therefore required populations to move in pursuit of game and other food supply. Whatever shelter was used needed to be easily portable and therefore made of light materials—wooden sticks, leaves, and rushes rather than stone. Ease of working and mobility worked together to favor shelter of modest scale, light materials, and easy mobility.
Evidence from Tribal Cultures
The oldest known traces of built human shelter, found in Terra Amata in southern France, are believed to be 400,000 years old. These most minimal remains suggest the form of huts made from tree branches. Although archeological evidence is scarce about the nature of the earliest built structures, there is evidence to be found by turning to the other source of clues to early human shelter—the practices of “primitive” societies. Although now in retreat as modern societies press in upon them, “primitive” peoples survive in many inaccessible geographical regions and many others were extant as recently as one or two centuries ago. “Primitive” societies are characterized by a powerful conservatism, a devotion to traditional ways (often reinforced by a system of taboos that discourage change), and a mistrust of the concept of “progress” that dominates modern “developed” societies. As a result, “primitive” ways can be regarded as exemplifying more ancient ways—ways that can be traced back to the stone age. Most “primitive” societies depend on hunting, fishing, and food gathering for sustenance. They are therefore generally to some degree migratory and must build shelter that is readily portable.
Peoples in tribal Africa, in the islands of the Pacific, in the Arctic, and in the North and South American continents before the coming of Europeans are now, o...