Sticks and Stones and Mammoth Bones

I am once again writing a book on a short deadline.  Unlike Heroines of Mercy Street,  it is not a book that the Marginalia will have any interest in.  My friends and family will feel no need to buy  or read it.*  I won’t post the cover here.**  There will be no interviews, guest posts, articles in,  speaking gigs.  And yet it is a useful book on a topic in which I’ve long been interested:  a history of architecture for kids.

When I was kid myself, I poured over a similar book time and again.  It was part of a series that came with a set of encyclopedias.  The books are long gone.  I can’t remember the title of the series.  But I see them clearly in my mind.  I remember how they caught my imagination.  If I can evoke the same sense of wonder/delight/curiosity in even  one kid, this book will be a success as far as I’m concerned.

At the moment, I’m working on the way the shelters built by early humans developed into vernacular architecture–structures built from local materials by local craftsmen in local traditions.  The kind of architecture that needs no architect.

The earliest shelters of all, built by nomadic hunters long before we learned to farm, are pretty fascinating.   Sometimes early humans took advantage of the natural shelter provided by caves and rock ledges.    More often they made camp near water and built temporary shelters from the materials at hand.***  The oldest known example of such a camp is the Terra Amata site near Nice, France–built some 300,000 years ago.  (Yes–that is three hundred thousand.  No extra zeroes floating around.)  The shelters in the camp were more than just hides thrown over some sticks.  They dug out a foundation, built a palisade wall of brushwood and set roof supports down the center.  The final result was about the size of a mobile home.  Even more amazing, there is evidence that they came back year after year and built new huts on the old foundations, kindling the fires in the prior year’s ashes.  These were not just huts.  They were homes.

Humans built shelters on the same basic design for hundreds of thousands of years.  One variation in particular caught my imagination:  Between 30,000 and 18,000 years ago,**** a culture of mammoth hunters lived in what is now the Ukraine.  The region was largely tundra and wood was scarce.  The mammoth hunters built huts for a semi-permanent winter camp using framework of mammoth bones instead of wood.  Each hut took several hundred mammoth bones–no small feat, even if, as some archaeologists speculate, they gathered bones of animals that had died natural deaths. (Does anyone else get an image of bones scattered across the tundra like litter from a giants’ picnic?)

Mammoth bone house recreation. National Museum of Nature and Science.

This recreation at Tokyo’s National Museum of Nature and Science is much creepier than the one in my imagination.

The moral of the story for me? Humans are ingenious.

*Though My Own True Love is reading the chapters as I produce them:  finding the errors, pointing out the things that don’t make sense, asking the tough questions.  He is the best.

**Unless it turns out to be too cool not to share.

***Because caves weren’t always available and they weren’t always safe. No one wants to share lodging with a cave bear or other  wild predator.

****Practically yesterday compared to the site at Terra Amata

Image courtesy of Momotarou2012, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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