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What is home? This is a deceptively simple question. Is it the place where you were born? Is it where you happen to live right now? Does it have to be a dwelling, or can it be a spot on the landscape, or even a state of mind?

For archaeologists tracing human origins, these are challenging questions. Yet answering them provides key insights into our evolution from hominids at the mercy of our surroundings to humans in control of them. Having a sense of home, as we understand it today, is a product of symbolic thinking, a capacity that makes us unique among animals, including our own ancestors.

Intimations of home likely began in early hominids’ need for shelter. Australopithecus species, to which the famous 3-million-year-old Lucy belonged, often sheltered in trees, where they may have sought cover under dense clumps of leaves in the way in which great apes do today when it rains. Much later, about 400,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers, probably belonging to the species Homo heidelbergensis, constructed a camp on a beach at Terra Amata, now a suburb of the French city Nice. One large hut was about 30 feet long, and consisted of an oval palisade of saplings stuck in the ground, reinforced with a ring of stones, and presumably brought together to form a roof. Just inside a break in the ring where the doorway was, a campfire had burned in a hearth.

It is hard to not think that these early humans felt at home in this basic structure. Some might even argue that the crucial element was not the shelter itself but the hearth, where the flames would have formed a center of attention and social activity. In this limited sense, feelings of home were evidently there from the very beginning.

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Having a sense of home, as we understand it today, is a product of symbolic thinking, a capacity that makes us unique among animals.

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. Today, we carry out such modifications on a huge scale, and nature occasionally bites back, sometimes with a vengeance. Back in Natufian times, we catch a glimpse of this process in its embryonic stage.

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The decision to stay in one place, at least part of the year, entailed a transfer of individual loyalty from the mobile social group to a particular place. The Natufians lived by foraging and hunting in the oak-and-pistachio woodlands in the region and probably tended wild stands of the wheat and rye that grew naturally there. They harvested these cereals with sickles made out of sharp flint blades embedded into animal bones, and stored them in pits dug into the floors of their round, single-room houses. The houses themselves were sunk into the ground, and often had central fire pits for cooking. Archaeologists have also found a scattering of domestic paraphernalia within, including stone mortars for grinding grain, and devices to straighten arrow shafts for use in the hunt.

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.

Archeologists can tell a lot about lifestyles from these artifacts. The Natufians were biologically modern people. Interments of the dead with grave goods, both in presumably abandoned houses and nearby caves, hint at ritual and spiritual beliefs. Pendants and beads made of shell, bone, and deer teeth additionally testify to a Natufian love of personal adornment.

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We don’t know if the single-room houses were occupied by nuclear families or some other kind of kin group, or whether size disparities among the houses reflected varying social status or family sizes. What we do know is that dwellings of this kind were generally grouped into “villages” that would have housed about 150 inhabitants. They would almost certainly have felt like “home” to those who occupied them. It is clear that these people were pioneering a successful transition between the nomadic hunting-and-gathering lifestyles of their predecessors and the permanently settled existences of the Neolithic peoples who succeeded them around 10 thousand years ago.

So even before early people settled down to permanent agriculture and animal husbandry, the Natufians had laid a huge amount of the physical and social groundwork necessary for a fateful economic development that literally changed the world. And in a busy Natufian village, buzzing with life, we can readily imagine that everyone had a sense of belonging, both to the village itself, and to the individual homes that sheltered them. It seems that the formation of a community was an important turning point in the evolution of human society.

The famed lexicographer Samuel Johnson, a master of verbal precision, defined the word “home” in his great Dictionary of the English Language of 1755 very concretely as “his own house … the private dwelling,” but he also included an adjectival phrase: “close to one’s own breast or affairs.” In doing so, he was reflecting what we can see as the many-layered meanings of the Natufian village, which tied the notion of place to the more abstract feeling of belonging to a social group that had anchored individual human identities in earlier times.

This abstract sense of place is part of the cognitive equipment that we bring to bear on our notions of home. Modern human beings are cognitively peculiar. Uniquely, we resolve our surroundings into a vocabulary of mental symbols. We can then reshuffle the symbols to produce abstractions that we add to the concrete world around us. We are blessed with manipulative hands that enable us to put these ideas into action. But our powers of symbolic reasoning are a newly acquired capacity, dating back to no more than about 100,000 years ago. By this reckoning, the Natufians and the inhabitants of Mezhirich would have been able to nurture complex notions of home that Lucy and the Terra Amata folks could not. However deep in human history their emotional or economic underpinnings may run, the complex and nuanced ideas about home that we cherish today are the invention of our Homo sapiens species alone.

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Ian Tattersall is a curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. An acknowledged leader in the study of the human fossil record and the lemurs of Madagascar, Tattersall is the author of many books about human evolution, including, most recently, Masters of the Planet and (with Rob DeSalle) The Brain: Big Bangs, Behaviors, and Beliefs.

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