On the way towards an anthropological prehistory

by Nold Egenter

"The history of the human settlement has not been written yet - archaeological finds of the stone age period remained too fragmented until now, and, for too short a time only settlement or landscape-archaeology play an established role in research."

(Jens Lüning 1989)


Most archaeologists and prehistorians are not fully aware of the 'historistic handicaps' of their field. Of course, most are conscious of the fact that their finds are always more or less highly fragmented remains of the culture that once lived where they are searching for sources. But, this is generally understood as a 'conditio sine qua non'. There is a strong historical (or hermeneutic) conscience which limits the discussion of this problem.

One of the few who clearly saw these limitations of the discipline(s) was Gordon Childe. He consequently suggested that the wider circle of anthropology should develop new theories which then could be tested by the archaeologist's historical method. To cite Childe: "...archaeology together with anthropology as twin branches of the science of man could provide the basis for the reliable induction of laws on the historical process, the specific role of archaeology being to test the systems advanced by ethnographers on the basis of their synchronic analyses of contemporary cultures." (Barbara McNairn 1980).

Now, this can be taken literally as a programme. A short discussion follows.

This new view on structural continuities could lead us to the question: how do we have to define an 'anthropological concept of material culture'?


Material culture in archaeology

There is no need here to discuss the term 'material culture' in the archaeological framework. Only one characteristic may be mentioned: the high quantitative fragmentation is taken for granted. Any excavation site in general is an extremely reduced condition of what it once was. Remains might provide 1 to 10% of the originally vital situation. The rest has decayed. Evidently this produces a highly reductionist view, which is particularly problematic if archaeologists speak of "prehistorical cultures".

Material culture in ethnology:
fibroconstructive technology

In contrast to this, the anthropological outlook suggests a much wider horizon. Let us first check the term 'material culture' in ethnology.

Even at first sight, a striking difference is revealed. In Berlin-Dahlem for instance, where an ethno-museum and an archaeological one are closely adjacent, a comparison of the two 'material cultures' is at hand. The archaeological museum offers durable objects, practically 100%. In the ethnological museum a quite different material is dominant. We find numerous objects (huts, houses, fences, traps, baskets, ritual clothing etc.) constructed with fibrous materials. These objects are not durable, in most cases even highly perishable. Depending on the museum, one can say that up to 90% is of perishable character.

Cross culturally, the Vienna school of ethnology has worked intensely on the term material culture (Hirschberg/ Janata 1966/89). The book amply reports on fibroconstructive industries. Morphologically, the most interesting characteristic of this type of material culture is its tremendous formal and functional diversity, evidently a production of long developments. In addition it shows a technological characteristic which hints to diachronic depth: it is widely produced with manipulating hands. Tools play a very secondary role in this technology.

There is another important aspect. Most of these objects are constructed. They are made by joining similar or different fibrous elements, using some method of fixation (binding). Not surprisingly the technique is also amply used in built forms, like huts, sheds, houses and roof constructions. This architectural aspect has recently been documented in Paul Oliver's 'Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World (1997). In 3 volumes it shows the enormous diffusion of fibroconstructive industries. Besides this, it is the first global 'architectural ethnology' and, consequently, is another important reason to speak of fibroconstructive technology.

Ethnology and fibroconstructive technologies. In regard to the diachronical validity of fibroconstructive object culture, there are two basic positions. In general it is maintained that all these fibrous objects or techniques are recent inventions, they are not considered to be ancient. But this may be an archaeological prejudice. On the other hand there are many reasons, e.g.technological ones, to assume that these fibroconstructive objects might be part of an anthropologically deep-rooted constructive tradition, which did not register in the archaeological method.

Semantic architecture:
an important part of fibroconstructive material culture

If we follow the second hypothesis, we will definitely look differently into ethnology (and folklore, history and prehistory). There are a lot of materials hardly studied in this empirical context, particularly in the cultic or religious domain.

The author works cross-culturally, syn- and diachronically on what earlier history of religion had called 'fetish', 'idol', spirit hut, etc. (ethnology), maypole etc. (folklore), life-tree, tree of cognition, signs of deities, etc. (history, prehistory) [Egenter 1980, 1981,1982,1986, 1992, 1994b, 1998*]. Religion has an enormous literature on this phenomenon (see Eliade's classified bibliography, 1954). Architectural anthropology considers them as primary fibroconstructive demarcations of places important in the local ontology (dwelling, settlement and food control).

In the ethnological field we can survey these demarcations in the framework of vital rites and cults, and we can reconstruct their meaning in the complex network of their socio-territorio-semantic and spatio-structuro-symbolic functions. Signs and cults are syn- and diachronically deeply interwoven with the local ontology and its highest values (they are sacred, are seats of deities etc.). This naturally suggests that this 'settlement core complex' has a deep 'history' in the sense of an object tradition (Egenter 1994b).

Subhuman Architecture:
a very early fibroconstructive technology

There is another and quite different support for this anthropologically wide-spanned concept of 'material culture'. We find "fibroconstructive industries" in primatology. Based on their survey of nestbuilding behaviour among the 'Great Apes' (1929) the Yerkes put this 'fibroconstructive' behaviour at the beginning of an evolution of 'constructivity', that is to say of constructive alterations of the natural environment for a defined existential goal (protected rest) and with the potential of adapting to this alteration. Citing the Yerkes: "...nesting behaviour illustrates the appearance and phylogenetic development of constructivity, and coincidentally, the transition from complete dependence on self-adjustment to increasing dependence on manipulation or modification of environment as a method of behavioural adaptation." (Yerkes 1929:564).

Note that nests are routinely built by all great apes, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutan. At least one new nest is built for every night. Thus, quantitatively it is a tremendous production. If all the nests which one chimpanzee individual builds during his approximately 40 year long life, were virtually piled up we would obtain a 'sky scraper' of about 11 times the height of the Eiffel tower.

In the framework of paleontology and paleanthropology the suggestion of the Yerkes can be interpreted in socio-biological terms. Nestbuilding behaviour would consequently have to be assumed for the Miocene apes (Proconsul, Sivapithecus etc.). A very new and important paradigm appears: we would have to account for a constructive factor beginning about 22 million years ago. That time spans of this dimension raise genetic questions is evident. Was this very strong disposition for constructive behaviour the basic factor of hominisation?

In view of cultural implications the nestbuilding behaviour can be interpreted as a proto-cultural "pre-lithic fibroconstructive industry". We would now dispose of a proto-cultural factor beginning about 22 million years ago with the Miocene apes. It is evident that this new anthropological complement to conventional prehistorical periodisation could change many discussions, e.g. about the 'man the toolmaker' concept.

In the following I would like to outline this approach schematically. Adding a new fibroconstructive industry into the conventional periodisation scheme raises many new questions. We will limit ourselves to hinting to three most striking aspects:

  1. routined terrestric nestbuilding and the erection of the body,
  2. the evolution of construction and its impacts on brain size,
  3. fibroconstructive territorial demarcation and the evolution of food control and sedentarisation.


In their textbook on Anthropology Ember and Ember (1994) have worked with a list combining fossil records and major cultural developments in both cases according to first appearance. In view of two points this list is very valuable for us. First, their combination of data shows clearly the extension of present prehistory into anthropological dimensions. And second, their summarized presentation of most important 'cultural developments' provides an overall view and a scale which is ideal for our purpose.

Fig. 1: The Embers' combined list of fossil records and major cultural developments

The Ember's list schematically uses 5 phases which are described by the Embers fairly convincingly in the framework of conventional physical and cultural anthropology. They are

  1. Late Cretacious to Miocene (in this primary phase we will only use the Miocene),
  2. Pliocene/Lower Paleolithic,
  3. Middle and Upper Paleolithic,
  4. Meso- and Neolithic,
  5. Bronze Age.

Please note that we use the above numbers and periods as a basic reference in the following text.

Now, to this list of dated fossil records and prehistorical sources a new anthropological grid will be added. It contains our hypothetical sources. From left to right:

Fig. 2: Adding elements of an anthropologically defined '[proto-]material culture' to the Embers' list

Regarding the parameter 'social organisation of settlement', it has to be noted here that nestbuilding, at least among gorillas and chimpanzees is recorded as a matter of groups. The nests of the group form a night camp of a distinct spatial organisation (value centrality and access-place scheme). <1> We have therefore 'arguments' for the assumption that 'constructivity' was from its early conditions related to social grouping and that this produced some sort of spatial organisation, particularly in the case of dominantly terrestric nests.

However, this is of only secondary importance here. What dominates our present discussion is 'material culture'. But we should not loose sight of the fact that architectural demarcation always implies spatial organisation. This will be particularly important in view of our third field, 'evolution of food control and sedentarisation'.

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