The 'Deep Structure' of Architecture

Constructivity and Human Evolution

by Nold Egenter


The Concept of Architectural Anthropology

Architectural Anthropology is a relatively new type of architectural research. Based on the Yerkes' "Evolution of Constructivity" (1929) it defines architecture as 'all what hominoids and hominids built and build'. In many former studies we have tried to outline the approach from various viewpoints <1>. All these studies remained relatively limited on clearly defined subjects, using essentially instruments of architectural description and theory. And as such they can be considered as contributions to the wider field of anthropology.

However, anthropology is not only a container, which can integrate new things. It is also an immense field of data which has a long and highly complex history of research. And, most important, it has developed a systematic scientific structure (see e.g. W. E. Mühlmann's excellent 'History of Anthropology', 1968). It is in this deeper scientific sense that, from the beginnings, the term 'architectural anthropology' was conceived. Architecture, defined anthropologically in the widest sense, is considered as a fundamental part of human culture and consequently has to be researched in this widest framework.

The following shows the essential characteristics of this dialogue. What does the concept of 'architectural anthropology' contribute to cultural and physical anthropology? We will see that on one hand, the term anthropology confronts us with a very challenging framework of existing research and results. On the other hand, the architectural view has something important to contribute.

Superseding conventional anthropology with
the anthropological implications of material culture

Architectural Archaeology

In a recent paper on 'Architectural Archaeology' we have discussed the present state of research essentially reviewing the book of Lucien Lepoittevin 'La maison des origines' (1996). Most important: we found indicators to consider the prehistory of architecture with similar time depths as those of the earliest tools, that is about 2 million years ago. On the other hand we dealt critically with the archaeological method. Its strict clinging to the methods of history, its fixiation on durable and datable remains and its often very fragmented finds are not suitable for the reconstruction of the highly complex prehistory of 'architecture' and 'settlement'. In addition, if, following the Yerkes' concept of a primarily fibrous evolution of 'constructivity' (Yerkes 1929, Egenter 1983, 1998*) <2> we can assume that early conditions were dominantly not of a durable character ([prelithic] fibro-constructive industries <3>). Thus archaeology reveals as a highly questionable instrument. We have to look for other methods.

Towards an anthropological concept of material culture

'Material culture' is the basic term that supports archaeology and prehistory. Can we define it differently? Can we enlarge the narrow definition used in archaeology (durable remains) into a wider, anthropological concept, which uses the term 'material culture' in an 'ethno-pre-historical framework (Wernhardt 1981), including material [proto-] culture in primatology?

In their textbook on 'Anthropology' the Embers (1994) present a list combining fossil records and major cultural developments according to first appearance. Their summarised presentation of most important 'cultural developments' provides an overall view of present conceptions of human evolution, biological and cultural. The list schematically uses 5 phases which are described in the framework of conventional physical and cultural anthropology. They are
The above numbers and periods are used as a basic reference in the following.

This list of dated fossil records and prehistorical sources can be superseded by a new anthropological grid (Fig. 1) which contains hypothetical sources reconstructed ethno-pre-historically and primatologically in the framework of architectural anthropology. From left to right:
These new sources are called 'hypothetical' because, consisting of non-durable materials, they can not be documented archaeologically unless they appear in combination with durable elements (stones, bones, etc.; Egenter 1994a, 1998*). But, there are other ways to test the concepts of 'constructivity' and 'fibro-constructive industries' on their paleoanthropological and prehistorical value. The question is: if we assume that fibro-constructive industries had been widespread in prehistory, can we show any impacts, either in the fossil record or with prehistorical sources?

For this discussion Fig. 2 was prepared. It shows the same numbered phaseology of the Embers (1994) 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 (Egenter 1980, 1982, 1994a, b, c, 1995). It is evident that this scheme stimulates new discussions in anthropology and prehistory (Egenter 1986, 1998*). The interactive zones are shown in three rounded rectangles. They indicate three anthropologically important subjects: We will discuss these topics under the following three main titles.


Routined ground nest building of the great apes

In a study of the author entitled 'Ape Architects' (Egenter 1983, 1998*) the distinction between arboreal nests and ground nests was emphasised. In present theories of hominisation the ecological distinction of arboreal and terrestrial domains of locomotion is crucial. Both types of space form a climatically conditioned transitional environment with specific implications for locomotion, food control and social behaviour. Most anthropologists today agree that this transitional environmental background provided the stage for hominisation processes in Africa. However, the function of the components in this environment is controversial (Sabater Pi 1997). Sociobiology is fixed on the toolmaker concept. Authors are not aware of the empirical implications of nest building behaviour and consequently its potential as a prototype of 'material culture' is neglected (MacGrew 1992). Sociobiological primate research thus deprives itself of an important element of the subhuman condition: 'constructivity' and the routine demarcation of existential place and space (Egenter 1983, 1998*).

On the other hand, if nest building behaviour is considered from the Yerkesian point of view as a constructive alteration of the natural environment for an important existential function (nightly rest and sleep) and with the potential of adaption to evolving processes, then the ground nest becomes a phenomenon of outstanding importance (Egenter 1983, 1998*). 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. In contrast to this, the ground 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 (for illustrations see Egenter 1983, 1998*) . A further important 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. Note that if the life production of one subhuman nest builder is vertically heaped up, a tower of about 11 times the height of the Eiffel tower in Paris results. To be aware of this quantitative aspect is of utmost importance! (Egenter 1983, 1998*)

The ground nest and vertical position of body

Zoologically speaking, bipedalism 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 bipedalism provide rather superficial interpretations of first hand impressions. In contrast to this, the argument based on nest building is cogent. It relates not only to the erection of the body, but includes the whole complex of arm and hand development (increased rotation, precision grip) and increased importance of stereoscopic vision (flattening and verticalisation of face, view focussed on operations with hands). If we assume that open savanna became dominant in certain regions, the capacity to efficiently build a stable ground nest of a certain height in vertical body position might have become an important selective advantage essentially by the spatial and social protection it offered (Egenter 1983, 1998*).

In short, we can maintain with solid arguments that routine ground nest building must have been the main factor in the erection of the body and bipedal locomotion among Miocene hominoids living in or at edges of open woodlands and grasslands. This evolutionary process of terrestrial 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 including Homo habilis, H. erectus, H. sapiens, H. sapiens-sapiens, that is modern humans. To conclude we might ask a fairly provoking question. Is the upright body posture of humans, in fact, a reminiscence of a very primordial 'history' of architecture, the dominant development of ground nests in open savanna landscapes? (Fig. 3)


The complexity of the pongid nest:
prerequisite for an architectural revolution

Protocultural characteristics of the nest

Let us shortly come back to the suggestion of the Yerkes (1929) of an evolution of 'constructivity' related initially to nest building behaviour of the great apes. It is very important here to stress the complexity of the apes nest. It is deeply interwoven with pongid life. It supports an existential need which covers half of the animal's life, the nights. Pongids are nomads. Each animal produces one nest every night of its approximately 40 years' life. In contrast to the daytime spent mainly with locomotor activities and nutrition the large sized animals need rest and sleep in horizontal body position. (Egenter 1983, 1998*).

Nest building is of a high complexity in its material, constructive, social, spatial, topo-semantic <5>, and formal conditions (Egenter 1983, 1998*). It is partially instinctive behaviour, partly learned behaviour (Bernstein 1962, 1969; Lethmate 1977). In an evolutionary sense, the distinction of tree nests and ground nests is of primary importance. Nest types correspond to two different environments (arboreal, terrestrial) and thus might have played an important role in hominisation.

Thus, nest building behaviour shows much more protocultural characteristics than nut cracking or ant fishing in the toolmaker concept. In this context MacGrew's (1992) book with its bold title 'Chimpanzee Material Culture - Implications for Human Evolution' is extremely misleading. It is based on the very marginal phenomenon of tool use, nest building is completely neglected.

The psychology of the nest

The nest building behaviour provides arguments to even speak of the 'psychology of the nest'.
These psychological aspects show clearly that the nest is intrinsically interwoven with the existence of the great apes. A definite artifact is created that suggests a high degree of identification of its maker with the produced object and its complex functions.

The topo-semantic characteristics of the pongid nest

Finally we should also ask for 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? As it seems there are no reports on semantic aspects of nest building behaviour, but recently a very interesting study has been published which shows that the Bonobos have a fairly elaborated system of traffic signs.

Savage-Rumbaugh et. al. (1996) recently reported on their observations on a very distinct semantic behaviour of a group of Bonobos (Fig. 5). A large group split into two parts. The first subgroup used at least seven different methods to inform the second subgroup about the way they had taken. Leaves of different size, twigs, branches and small trees were used. Signs were bent or torn and laid on or beside or across the path indicating direction. Most interesting in our context: large branches were broken off and stuck into the ground in upright position! Evidently the animals are using their strong force. Branches were stuck about 80 cm into the ground. Thus, the Bonobo sign system confronts us with an extremely important fact that there is an artificial semantic dimension in primate behaviour with the purpose of information and communication. The transmitted code is independent from physical or vocal contact, it is 'read' from the conditions of an artifact and its position in the environment.

This 'topo-semantic' element is also present in nests arranged by a group in the framework of temporary night camps. Kawai et al. (1959) have measured such a night camp and have published plans of it. The arrangement of the nests shows a clear order. Their disposition expresses spatial values (centre, periphery). The nests are clearly organised in view of environmental control (Egenter 1983, 1998*). Thus the topo-semantic concept is not only valid in the domain of 'migration' (Bonobo), but also in the framework of 'dwelling' (night camp), eventually also in regard to food control.

So far these are all primatological data. But, as the hypothesis of the Yerkes indicates, fairly constant behaviour patterns are assumed in the framework of sociobiology. We can thus assume that the Miocene apes about 15 million years ago had a fairly complex landscape of built form. In niches of open woodlands (formed due to climatic changes between 16-11 million years ago) it consisted of the night camp type dominantly consisting of ground nests described by Kawai et al. (1959). What is extremely important here is to be aware of the high complexity of this constructive topo-semantic behaviour as a prerequisite for the following: it can be taken as a basic precondition for the hominisation of the brain.

Paleoanthropology: the problem of the human brain

Slightly simplified, the fossil records tell us the following in regard to the increase of brain size. Australopithecus shows no difference to living pongids (500cc). Among Homo habilis we find about 750cc, Homo erectus shows about 1000cc 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 memorising capacity? In the framework of anthropology this question is still widely open. Was it 'language', 'toolmaking', 'social interactions', 'outwitting rivals to get mates'? All these potential impacts are discussed and taken individually or more or less collectively as the main cause(s) of early hominid brain developments. In contrast to this questionable guesswork, architectural anthropology proposes a 'hidden architectural revolution' as the 'prime mover' for the development of the hominid brain. The process was triggered by the early use of stone tools. This shall be outlined in the following.

The toolmaker concept is overrated today

Many anthropologist strongly favour tool use as the 'prime mover'. However, on a closer look it is evident that the conventional 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, namely 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.

The tool and increasing brain size

Australopithecus had no tools. For Homo habilis earliest types of tools are assumed. 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). This approximative temporal coincidence is seen as a very strong argument for the 'man the tool-maker' concept. The early tools are generally attributed to hunting and/or scavenging. However, it is very difficult to imagine how a relatively simple and stereotype manipulation like making stone tools and using them for cutting meat and scraping skins might have been able to influence brain size and memorising capacity.

Part 2