At home in opposition to the land

To an adult, most of the connotations of home seem positive: safety, stability, familiarity, comfort, nurturing. Yet as Ian Tattersall points out, to be tied to one place in a changing environment marked a turning point in human evolution — the juncture at which we placed ourselves in opposition to nature.

Archaeologists begin to see proto-houses during the Ice Age, some 15,000 years ago. Hunter-gatherers at the Ukrainian site of Mezhirich built four oval-to-circular huts that ranged from 120 to 240 square feet in area, and were clad in tons of mammoth bones. Out there on the treeless tundra, their occupants would have cooperated in hunting reindeer and other grazers that migrated seasonally through the area. The Mezhirich people dug pits in the permafrost that acted as natural “freezers” to preserve their meat and let them spend several months at a time in the “village.” With so much labor invested in the construction of their houses, it is hard to imagine that the Mezhirich folk did not somehow feel “at home” there.

But if an archaeologist had to pick an example of the earliest structures that most resembled our modern idea of home, it would probably be the round houses built by the semi-sedentary Natufians, an ancient people who lived around the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea (Israel, Syria, and environs) at the end of the last Ice Age, some 12,000 years ago. A typical Natufian village consisted of several circular huts each measuring about 10 to 20 feet in diameter; these villages testify to a revolutionary change in human living arrangements. Finally, people were regularly living in semi-permanent settlements, in which the houses were clearly much more than simple shelters against the elements. The Natufians were almost certainly witness to a dramatic change in society.

The end of the Ice Age was a time of transition from a hunter-gatherer mode of subsistence to an agricultural way of life. But it also involved a Faustian bargain. Adopting a fixed residence went hand-in-hand with cultivating fields and domesticating animals. It allowed families to grow, providing additional labor to till the fields. But becoming dependent on the crops they grew meant that people found themselves in opposition to the environment: The rain didn’t fall and the sun didn’t shine at the farmers’ convenience. They locked themselves into a lifestyle, and to make the field continuously productive to feed their growing families, they had to modify their landscape.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email