Ancient housekeeping

Look around the room you are sitting in right now. Regardless of whether it is your study, a library, or your bedroom, you will recognize a certain order and organization to it (even if it is a mess). Contemporary humans like to structure the places where they live, work and sleep. Even if you do not realize it, this omnipresent organization of living space is something special. Today, we as a species are unique among all animals in living most of the time in our own constructed cultural niche. In doing so, we constantly modify or even bar the natural world. The four built walls plus floor and roof that separate you from the outside are ample proof of this parallel universe we inhabit (“outdoors” is a vivid description for this observation). Although many animals show evidence for organizing their domestic space – such as the hives of bees or nests of termites  – humans are peculiar in the way and extent they do so.

While there are many things to pick up from this contemplation, I want to focus on the early evidence for this cultural organization of living space – ancient housekeeping. For starters, we need to clarify where our hominin ancestors actually lived. Up until fairly recently (considering the time scale of human evolution), housekeeping did not even involve having a house. The earliest constructed huts date to about 20.000 before present (bp)1. This should come as no surprise; until our forebears invented farming around 10.000 bp, all humans were living in groups as mobile hunter- and gatherers. These foragers frequently moved around the landscape and never dwelled in a single place for more than a few days or weeks. With such a restless lifestyle, owning and building a permanent structure like a massive house would be highly inconvenient.

There is abundant evidence that hominins, equipped with a very mobile lifestyle, settled at various different places in the landscapes including open-air localities, rockshelters and caves. While we usually do not find any housing facilities from these sites, it is very likely that people lived in tents made from skins or otherwise constructed shelters that have perished (keyword “taphonomy”). Although some of the evidence does not survive the ages, we have several different sources of information to reconstruct ancient (non-)households in the Old Stone Age. For one, the spatial distribution of stone tools or bones can provide indications of activity areas. Abundant waste of knapped rocks at one place (“workshops”) or the aggregated remains of defleshed carcasses (“butchering sites”) are just two examples. Ancient pyromantic activities such as open fires or hearths leave traces in the ground – with debated evidence as early as 1.8 million years ago – that can be discerned by careful excavation and consideration of sediment surfaces (“features”). These exemplary reconstructions have one thing in common: they are based on “macroscopic” observations, that is to say by the naked eye.

Micromorphology sample Sibudu SR

Geoarchaeology for beginners: wrap plaster around a nicely cut section from the archaeological stratigraphy and – Ta-Dah – you have a micromorphology sample (Picture by Sarah Rudolph)

Recently, there has been much advance in “microscopic” methods of analyses in archaeology. This methodological progress also had an impact on what we know about the cultural construction and organization of living space in modern humans. I will pick one example from the archaeological site of Sibudu in South Africa to illustrate this point, as much exciting research has been done here lately. Furthermore, it is also the locality that I study for my PhD (more on this in later posts). Populations of Homo sapiens occupied the large rockshelter of Sibudu for more than 40.000 years during the Middle Stone Age, leaving manifold traces of their stays in the ground. With the introduction of a method called “micromorphology”, (geo-)archaeologists zoomed in more closely at the inhabitants actual day-to-day lives. In short, micromorphology takes samples from archaeological sediments in the field, cuts these up into extremely thin slices in the laboratory (“thin sections”) and studies these slides under very high magnification through a microscope.

Sibudu MW

View of the archaeological site of Sibudu during excavations carried out by the University of Tübingen in March 2011. Indeed a beautiful work area (Image by Manuel Will)

So what did the “micromorphology people” find out? In 2011, they reported on centimeter-thick, compacted and laminated layers of plant material which constitute by far the earliest evidence for the construction of plant beddings worldwide3. While this may not sound so exciting at first, there is some importance to this finding. With their age of ~77.000-48.000 bp, the plant mats are more than twice as old as the next oldest evidence for floor preparations made from grasses. Furthermore, the findings show that people structured their living spaces by manufacturing areas for working or sleeping. The inhabitants sometimes even burnt the constructed bedding after use, presumably to get rid of smell or insects settling down, only to build new mats on top. Additionally, some of the mats contained plant species with insecticidal attributes to protect against noxious vermin, like mosquitoes, nesting in their beds. In a previous study involving micromorphology at the same site, Goldberg et al.4 also found evidence for the repeated use of living floors. The inhabitants constructed hearths, cleaned and raked their fireplaces afterwards and disposed of waste in dump areas. These findings suggest that modern humans at Sibudu maintained and organized their domestic space in a systematic manner way before built huts entered history.

Bedding micromorphology (Wadley et al. 2011, Fig. 1)

Micromorphology snapshots of selected bedding layers from Sibudu. A) Laminated, articulated phytoliths (p) on top of a sedge layer (c). B) Bedding of siliceous plants in close-up. C) Repeated construction and burning of bedding (taken from reference 2, Fig. 1)

Ultimately, the re-organization of living space evidenced at Sibudu and other sites might indicate a re-organization of the brains, social lives and settlement strategies of these people. It is thus important to study at which times different kinds of housekeeping behaviors originated, from sweeping floors and raking out waste, to building houses and separating rooms for washing, sleeping, and working. Starting from novel analytical methods, we now know that proper housekeeping extends far into our past. Presumably, even Stone Age children were yelled at by their parents to clean up their room (whatever that was). Not tidying your place at these times, however, might have had more severe consequences than nowadays: getting killed by hyenas that are attracted by the bony leftovers from supper or being infected with unpleasant diseases from insects drawn by the stench of waste is arguably a far worse deal than being grounded for a few days. Such consequences might even have been a selective pressure for such behaviors to evolve and be maintained.

1Maher, L.A., Richter, T., Macdonald, D., Jones, M.D. Martin, L., Stock, J.T., 2012. Twenty thousand-year-old huts at a hunter-hatherer settlement in Eastern Jordan. PLoS One e31447.

2Wadley, L., Sievers, C., Bamford, M., Goldberg, P., Berna, F., Miller, C., 2011. Middle Stone Age bedding construction and settlement patterns at Sibudu, South Africa. Science 334, 1388-1391.

3Goldberg, P., Miller, C.E., Schiegl, S., Ligouis, B., Berna, F., Conard, N.J., Wadley, L., 2009. Bedding, hearths and site maintenance in the Middle Stone Age of Sibudu Cave, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Journal of Archaeological and Anthropological Science 1, 95-122.


Posted on 20 January 2014, in Geoarchaeology, Human evolution, Paleolithic archaeology. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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