In their important book 'The Great Apes' (1929) the American primatologists Robert M. and Ada M. Yerkes had a great chapter on nestbuilding behavior of the Great Apes. They considered it as a transformation of the natural environment and termed the behaviour as 'constructivity'. Unfortunately this important concept was not continued in primatology. Evidently the widely known "pebble tool historism" was considered more profitable in the double sense of the term.

However, for the anthropologist who seriously questions his sources the switch to the use of pebble tools for nut cracking as a predisposition for anthropological consideration is an impardonable reductionism, the nest building behavior being a tremendously complex and much more important phenomenon with its physical, social and spatial implications.

Maybe the following paper could be taken as some sort of a platform to discuss the problem.

In contrast to the toolmaker-concept with its extremely limited activities of nut-cracking and ant fishing, the daily nest building is a routined and an extremely complex phenomenon, implying social, spatial categories, as well as constructive capacities which have to be learned by youngsters - mainly from their mother as teacher - during about 4 years.

In addition the nest as a prototype of more evolved constructive capacities and of human architecture is of great anthropological value.

I have tried to find out what this activity in fact produces quantitatively: in a life of 45 years a chimpanzee - building a nest every night - fabricates a virtual tower of 11 times the height of the Eiffel tower in Paris!

Primatologists do not see this tremendously important activity which is common to all Pongidae: Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Gorillas as well as Orang Utans! Evidently it must be a deep rooted tradition which started when Great Apes increased their body weight and had to pass the night in horizontal body posture, thus we can assume that the tradition was about 20 million years old!

Can we reconstruct the evolution of culture using 'constructive behavior' as a basic condition? I have been working about 30 years with this hypothesis and to me the concept of an "anthropology of habitat and architecture" has become a very convincing approach.


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this doesn't exactly follow on from this discussion point but I find it interesting to note that the nest-building or dwelling practices of non-human animals is very often simply considered "natural". I suppose this is a throwback to a nature/culture dichotomy.
I fully agree with you, it is definitely a deep regress. I tried to explain it with the influence of prehistory and their pebble tools, thus putting the emphasis on the 'tool-maker', but you are right, there is doubtless another element: like the birds-nest (though entirely different in function!) it must be a part of "nature"!

I am really shocked how in primatology the tool-maker concept has become dominant as a prototype of culture (or in McGrew's books even "culture"!). Both ant fishing and nut-cracking are in fact (as shown in field studies!) very marginal behaviors in contrast to nest building which is an absolutely routined daily behavior. In addition tool use is very marginal whereas nest-building is an existential condition related to daily night-life and physical reconstitution of the whole group and with social and spatio-psychological implications. Children have to learn it from their mother! The Yerkes have emphasized the constructive aspect ("constructivity") which can be traced directly into the human domain. In addition our rotating arms and precision grip of hand evolved from this extremely important "fibro-constructive" activity (Hediger in his 'Handgebrauch' (hand use) had argued in this direction long ago!). In addition the nest building behavior had followed one of the most important changes of Pongid-environments from arboreal space (tree-nests) to terrestric space (terrestric nests) which for someone who is familiar with human construction techniques becomes an extremely important transition and shows how important this constructive behavior really is. In addition it must be quite old. As an artifact behavior it might go into millions of years if one relates its origins to increase of body size and thus a physiological need for reconstitution during horizontal sleep at night.

Elaine Forde said:
this doesn't exactly follow on from this discussion point but I find it interesting to note that the nest-building or dwelling practices of non-human animals is very often simply considered "natural". I suppose this is a throwback to a nature/culture dichotomy.
It is interesting to note how the developement of tools- technologies designed to alter the natural environment- is presented as crucial to the experience of culture- that familiar trope- even where it is demonstrated to be a marginal activity.

I'm interested in exploring ideas about nest building as an existential condition as you say, but in the human-animal context of environmentalism and sustainable dwelling. Part of my research looks at understandings of "natural" in terms of how rural land is typified. In a situation where land rights are mediated by institutions, actants such as local planning departments come to a definition of the natural which generally excludes human-animals from this sphere. By extension, conceptually placing human-animals outside of nature shapes a relationship with "the environment" which is an entity experienced from without- I would argue that alienation defines this relationship.

I wonder then, whether this point-of-view perpetuates the conceptual division between culture - the domain of humans and technology, and nature, or whether anthropologists should carefully steer away from binary analyses altogether? Certainly Haraway's work explores techno-natures, and I agree that exploration of the ways in which - specifically in this case, environmental- knowledge is socially produced highlights the complexities of the interactions and processes which build social perspectives on what is natural, and how these come to affect the very existential process of dwelling.
I watched the video and found it fascinating and very convincing. I also enjoyed very much your latest post on meaning of OAC and the post on semantic architecture. Your approach is refreshing, genuine and engaged. You quote the evidence that needs to be quoted, without rhetorical flights of obscure fancy or claims to absolute expertise on rather common sense knowledge that in fact all humans hold in a somewhat reflexive embedded way.

I was also curious to know whether you know the work of Tim Ingold and if so, what you thought about it: he also crosses and links boundaries between evolution, phenomenology, biology and anthropology. He is also very interested in skill, practice, architecture (see 2000 "The Perception of the Environment"). His latest work on lines is a groundbreaking advance in debunking Cartesian point-line approaches to archaeology, anthropology, science etc.

About this post on nestbuilding: I have only recently and in a rather amateur-ish fashion got interested in evolution, so my question might be rather off-the-mark: you suggest at one point in the video that the nest is the place where very likely humans got used to the vertical position. Can you explain this in evolutionary terms? How would this be transmitted as a trait?

Also, do you think that the fact that orangutan mothers teach children how to build nests might be connected to widespread cultural conceptions of women as associated with the domestic domain?

Please see also my paper:

Nold Egenter:

The Deep Structure of Architecture: Constructivity and Human Evolution

in: Mari-Jose Amerlinck (ed.), ARCHITECTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY
(p. 43 - 81)

Bergin & Garvey, Westport, Ct / London, 2001




OAC Press



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