- continued -


We have outlined a new way to define material culture by extending our views beyond the prehistorical concept. We termed the suggested sources as 'hypothetical'. Consequently, in a first step we have to test the new concepts of 'constructivity' and 'fibroconstructive industries' on their historical value.

Concluding, we can definitely say that there are clear sources documenting the prehistorical presence of constructive behaviour. Many sources speak clearly of the fact that objects were constructed (huts in tectiformes) and that fibroconstructive materials were used (cylindrical tectiformes).

The main problem is a quantitative one. Sources are scarce, they are naturally limited. They only appear when intentionally drawn on durable materials (See Egenter 1986, 'Software for a soft Prehistory', also Egenter 1998*).

On the other hand construction follows certain rules and this provides us with systematic criteria <2> which can be used in the interpretation of the sources. To cite an example, terrestrial nests of the great apes knotted with rooted bamboo stalks are always more or less round in their horizontal section. This is an autonomous result of the particular technological process which also continues into derived forms with cut materials. Roundness must therefore be taken as a primary characteristic.

In other words, the reconstruction of 'constructivity' (Yerkes/Yerkes 1929) as a system provides an advantage in reconstructive reasoning. The historistic standpoint of the archaeologist is limited on the exegesis of his dated fact. His interest is focussed on the datable (first) appearance, often a 'discovery' in the literal sense. In contrast to this, the systematical reconstruction of constructive behaviour disposes of a much wider set of technical and functional paradigms, which allow us to trace influential lines between different types of construction.


If thus we realise that the proposed 'pre-lithic fibroconstructive technology' makes sense in the 'anthropological' periodisation scheme we might try to go a step further, having a closer look at potential interactions between conventional sources and the fibrous technology. The question is, if we assume that fibroconstructive industries had been widespread in prehistory, can we show any impacts, either in the fossil record or with prehistorical sources?

For this discussion we prepared the following plate. It shows the same numbered phaseology of the Ember/Embers with number 1-5 at the top. But the corresponding fields are turned by 90 degrees and the formerly vertical arrows are now shown horizontally. In addition other criteria are added as arrows (e.g. 'structuro-symbolic factor' implying 'polarity', or Yin-Yang type of cognition). It is evident that this scheme stimulates new discussions in anthropology and prehistory.

Fig. 3: Evolution of constructivity

The interactive zones are shown in three rounded red rectangles. They indicate the three topics mentioned before:

We will discuss these topics under the following three titles.


In a study entitled 'Ape Architects' (1983 in German, English 1998*) I have emphasised the distinction between arboreal nests and terrestric nests. This has two reasons. On one hand the ecological distinction of arboreal and terrestric domains of locomotion is crucial in present theories of hominisation. Both types of space form a climatically influenced transitional environment with specific conditions for locomotion, food control and social behavior. And most anthropologists today agree that this environmental background provided the stage for hominisation processes in Africa.

However, the function of the components in this transitional environment is controversial (Sabater Pi 1997). Sociobiology is fixed on the toolmaker concept, is thus not aware of the empirical implications of nestbuilding behaviour and consequently neglects its potential as a prototype of 'material culture' (MacGrew 1992). Sociobiological primate research thus deprives itself of an important element of the subhuman condition: 'constructivity' and the routined demarcation of existential place and space.

If, on the other hand, nestbuilding behaviour is surveyed from the Yerkesian point of view, as a constructive alteration of the natural environment for an existential function (nightly rest and sleep) and with the potential of adaptation, then the terrestric nest becomes a phenomenon of outstanding importance. First, from a constructive point of view. The tree nest is part of the tree in which it is built. It gains its stability naturally from the tree. But the terrestric nest introduces entirely new parameters which are evident, if we look at it as a construction. Rooted materials are used, e.g. bamboo stalks in a bamboo grove. Now vertical stability is fully a result of the technological activity of the animal. Stalks are broken, bent towards the centre, interwoven and knotted. A hut like construction results, which however is used as a 'tower' to sit or lie on.

The second point: if we assume that like in present great apes - nests are built routinely for each day's night, it gains an enormous quantitative importance. Sociobiologists are not aware of these quantitative dimensions, very likely due to the nest's perishable character. We mentioned it above, emphasise it again: If the life production of one subhuman nestbuilder is vertically heaped up, a tower of about 11 times the height of the Eiffel tower in Paris results. This quantiative aspect is of utmost importance!

Zoologically speaking, bipedism and erect locomotion are not uniquely human. But, evidently, very important changes of existential conditions are related to such biological transformations. However, present theories regarding the evolution of hominoid and hominid bipedism provide rather superficial interpretations of first hand impressions (e.g. Poo-poo theory: erect position for communication in high growing grasslands). In contrast to this, the argument based on nestbuilding is cogent:

Consequently we can maintain with solid arguments that routined terrestric nestbuilding must have been the main factor in the erection of the body and bipedic locomotion among Miocene hominoids living in or at edges of open woodlands and grasslands. This evolutionary process of bipedic locomotion with erect body posture was more or less completed with bipedal hominids that lived in East Africa about 4 million years ago (Australopithecus). It was maintained and refined as a basic characteristic in the following hominid evolution (Homo habilis, H. erectus, H. sapiens, H.sapiens-sapiens and modern humans).


Recently there was a discussion in the AnthroList to which I refer in the following. The initial text by Jeri H. Kalogeras was:

Does anybody know the current state of the *prime mover*
controversy in brain evolution? As far as I know, it is pretty well-established that there was a strong selective force 
for larger brains when the rapid brain size expansion 
began about 2 myr. But what do anthropologists think 
is the best hypothesis for the prime mover(s)? Language? 
Toolmaking? Social interactions? Outwitting rivals to get mates?

The discussion was fairly unclear, some favoured tool making, others social interactions, others all criteria at the same time. Some mentioned that language was relatively late, etc. The discussion stimulated me and I contributed some ideas, saying essentially that a hidden "architectural revolution" triggered by the discovery of the tool was the "prime mover" for the expansion of the hominid brain. There now follows some arguments.

The toolmaker concept is overrated today

In regard to the above mentioned competitors for the 'prime mover' it is evident that the toolmaker concept is much overvalued today. First, toolmaking and tool use is very marginal among present day pongids, even absent among orangutan (McGrew 1992). In addition its complexity is extremely low. And third, tool activities like nut cracking and ant fishing are only a small part of an existential category, nutrition. McGrew's attempt to describe tool behaviour of the great apes as a prototype of 'material culture' is not at all convincing. Evidently it is a scientific 'construct' influenced by the durable finds of conventional prehistory.

Protocultural characteristics of the nest

In contrast to this, if we refer to the suggestion of the Yerkes (1929) of an evolution of "constructivity" we might become aware of the fact that nestbuilding is much more interwoven with pongid life.

These points may illustrate the importance of nestbuilding behaviour. It shows much more protocultural charactristics than nut cracking or ant fishing in the toolmaker concept. I have critically questioned McGrew's book in this context. It is simply a case of scientific blindness to exclude the Pongid nest from the 'material [proto-] culture' of the great apes.

The psychology of the nest

One could even go one point further and speak of the 'psychological' characteristics of nesting behaviour.

Some of these points may lead us to question the semantic criteria. To what extent are the nests part of the pongid orientation system? Are used nests perceived as signs in their landscapes? Can they be distinguished from those of other groups? It seems there are no reports on such things.

The 'traffic signs' of the Bonobos

If the nests of a night camp are taken as nuclear demarcation and are questioned on their semantic implications,we might in a further step ask for peripheral signs. Do pongids characterise places in their domain of food control? How do they find their food places? As far as I know, present literature related to pongid observation in the wild does not offer descriptions of semantic behaviour related to control of food resources. Maybe the behaviour exists, but observers were not prepared to notice it.

However, as a recent and very interesting study shows (Savage-Rumbaugh et. al. 1996), Bonobos have a surprisingly elaborated system of traffic signs. If a group splits into two parts the first group uses at least seven different methods to inform latecomers about the way they had taken. Leaves of different size, twigs, branches and small trees are used. Signs are bent or torn and laid on or beside or across the path indicating direction. Most interesting in our context: large branches are broken off and stuck into the ground in an upright position! Evidently the animals are using their strong force. Branches are stuck about 80 cm into the ground.

Savage-Rumbaugh's report allows the following two hypotheses:

If for the moment we give priority to the second hypothesis, we could account for a toposemantic system in the evolution of constructivity. The Bonobo system is not constructive in the strict sense. It works with extraction and dislocation. On the other hand staking is definitely present (80 cm into the ground). One must know here that, in the evolution of constructivity, staking is one of the most important and doubtless earliest artificial means of providing stability to a (non-rooted) building. Particularly important is for the moment the fact, that the Bonobos offer us indicators about a toposemantic use of artificially used plants.

But, what has all this to do with the expansion of the hominid brain?

First, we have critically dealt with the conventional toolmaker concept. Then, we have tried to show that the term constructivity suggested by the Yerkes is much more complex than generally thought. It offers a wide range of proto-cultural criteria. This is the line we want now to bring to the forefront.

If we follow the fossil records in regard to the increase of brain size this can be graphically represented as in the following illustration (slightly simplified). Australopithecus shows no difference to living pongids (500 cc). Among Homo habilis we find about 750 cc, Homo erectus shows about 1000 cc and Homo sapiens sapiens appears with a brain size of approximately 1500 cc. The overall increase is about 300%. What provoked this tremendous need for an increased memorizing capacity?

Fig. 4: Increase of brain size

Australopithecus had no tools. For Homo habilis the earliest types of tools are assumed. The 'man the tool-maker' concept has a very strong argument here: an approximative temporal coincidence. Homo habilis, the first remarkable indicator of an increased brain size lived more or less in the temporal period where earliest stone tools are assumed (around 2.2 million years ago). These tools are generally attributed to hunting and/or scavenging. However, it is very difficult to imagine how a relatively simple and stereotype manipulation like cutting might have been able to influence brain size. Early production was fairly casual. And even if stones were used for killing and butchering a considerable increase in brain size is not very likely to happen. Some routined 'tool' behaviour like 'ant fishing' among present pongids evidently did not produce any pressure on memorizing capacity!

But if we imply that stones triggered the transition from very limited rooted building to free selection of terrestric sites and materials and consequently the differentiation of nests (and some signs) to a much wider spectrum of toposemantic and -later sedentary building, including the mental processes implied, we can imagine that there was a strong pressure on the brain for increasing capacities of memory. In other words, those who could control larger territories or use them more densely, had selective advantages. We will deal with this in more detail in the following.

The impacts of fibro-cutting tools on rooted buildings

If we take a look at our scheme above we see that the arrow representing 'nestbuilding behaviour of the great apes' continues into the present. Evidently it owes this continuity to theuninterrupted presence of a mixed arboreal and terrestric environment. What is important in this line is that relatively original conditions were preserved. Brain size remained constant and has not increased (Fig. 3).

If in some regions climatic changes favoured the formation of open savannas, we can assume that the terrestric nest became dominant in and around open landscapes. As we have mentioned above, it can also be inferred that the unique social grouping of terrestric night camps provided protection against predators. The terrestric nest offered a selective advantage. But, seen now as objects of material (proto-) culture, these terrestric nests had a great handicap. The buildings had to be constructed where feasible plants were growing. With some observed exceptions of heaped grass nests ('siesta nests'), terrestric nests of the pongids are exclusively constructed with rooted materials. It is very likely that this 'rootedness' provided the conservative element in present day's great apes. It might be seen as the most important reason 'why they did not develop culture'.

Next part
Back to homepage