A Blog Book, by Victor Grauer

. . . . . for Alan Lomax, who lives . . . . .

I felt that their music came from the back of time, but also, to a certain extent, from my own depths.

Simha Arom

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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Chapter Eight: Beehive Huts in Depth

Could the Out of Africa migrants (HMP) have inherited beehive huts from the ancestral group (HBP), and passed on that same tradition to at least some of their many descendants? I’d like, at this point, to focus our attention on this particular question because a comparative analysis of beehive huts from many different parts of the world can serve as a model for how one might go about evaluating the distribution of any cultural element. And, thanks to the Internet, we have at our disposal a rich store of photographic evidence to consider and evaluate.

There are many types of “beehive” hut in various parts of the world -- and the question is: are they related or is their shape simply a coincidence. When the designs and methods of construction are extremely similar, and they are found among hunter-gatherers or horticulturalists with many traditions in common with HBC, then it would be difficult, I think, to deny common ancestry. When found in more “advanced” societies, in more elaborate forms, or built from different construction materials, then the relationship is not so clear -- further research is certainly indicated, because the shape itself may have been passed on traditionally, even if other aspects of construction have changed.

Here's a painting of some beehive huts, very much like the Pygmy, Bushmen and Hadza huts we’ve already seen:

Figure 8.1 Australian Huts

Only these are from Australia. Australia might seem extremely remote, certainly very far from Africa. Nevertheless: it is exactly the same distance from HBC as are the Pygmies and Bushmen as far as time is concerned. It's generally accepted that humans migrated all over the world from Africa, so does it really make a difference how far they wandered, so long as they were intent on maintaining their traditions? And if there is anything we know about indigenous peoples, it is their absolute fixation on their ancestors and the traditions associated with them.

Getting back to Africa, here are beehive huts from the Dorze people, of Southwest Ethiopia:

Figure 8.2 Dorze hut

Figure 8.3 Dorze hut

The Dorze are not hunter-gatherers, and in fact have a culture considerably more complex than that of the Pygmies or Bushmen. As we heard in the previous chapter, their music, nevertheless, has many striking points in common with P/B style, including rather elaborate interlocking counterpoint, and yodel as well. Unlike Pygmy or Bushmen huts, these are definitely built to last. Was there some evolutionary process that began with HBC, or are these huts a completely independent invention? Would it be possible to find a string of huts in various places leading up to the Dorze type that might represent different “stages” in their evolution? Would it matter if we could find such intermediary “stages”? I'm not sure. One thing I do know, however: if the geneticists are on the right track, then the Dorze, like every other people now living in our world, are descended from HBP. If their ancestors had beehive huts, then why would it be surprising to find beehive huts among them now?

Similar speculations arise regarding more permanent dwellings by other, more “advanced” African groups, such as the Zulu and Swazi:

Figure 8.4 Zulu huts

Figure 8.5 Swazi huts

The very similar Swazi and Zulu huts depicted above are clearly more elaborate than the huts we've seen from Pygmy, Bushmen and Hadza sources. But when we compare them with a more traditional type of Zulu hut, it appears as though the more complex design could have evolved from the simpler:

Figure 8.6 Traditional Zulu Hut

The following “beehive” hut is from a completely different part of the world, and made of stone rather than wood and leaves:

Figure 8.7 Stone “Beehive” Hut -- Bronze Age Ireland

It's beehive shape might well be a coincidence. Or it might have evolved from an earlier type, also found in the British Isles, but much closer to traditional African designs:

Figure 8.8 “Celtic” Hut (reconstruction) – Wales

Compare the above with these huts, from New Guinea:

Figure 8.9 Traditional Huts – Dani

I'm wondering how the stone hut was constructed. If a wooden framework, similar to the framework of the traditional African huts, were constructed first, it would have been easy to position the stones against the wood, which could be easily removed once the stone structure was complete. Without such a superstructure it’s difficult to conceive how the upper stones would have remained in place, especially since mortar was not used. In this way it might be possible to imagine a single line of evolution from the wood and grass huts pictured above to the stone ones. On the other hand, if some other method of placing the stones had been used, then the connection wouldn't be so clear.

The same thinking could be applied to these mud huts, from the Near East:

Figure 8.10 “Beehive” Mud Huts -- Harran, Turkey

Figure 8.11 Syrian Mud Huts

How were they constructed? If built over a wooden framework similar to that of the traditional African huts, that would suggest a possible connection with HBC. If not, then one would have to consider independent invention.

Is the igloo a derivation from the beehive hut?

Figure 8.12 Eskimo with dog and igloo

Not all Igloos are made of ice. This one is covered with skins and probably had a wooden frame:

Figure 8.13 Eskimos with different kind of Igloo

Did the ice Igloo evolve from a hut like this one? If so, could it too be traceable to HBC? Skins are a natural substitute for leaves or grass in an environment without much vegetation. And when there's no wood around to build a framework, then ice might be the only recourse. Nevertheless, the Igloo is definitely one of the more brilliant inventions of the human mind, no question. It's also an excellent example of cultural adaptation to environmental conditions. But where there is adaptation, there must also be something already on hand that's been adapted.

The remarkable similarities between the framework of the Wigglesworth Observatory

Figure 8.14 The Wigglesworth Observatory, under construction

and that of a traditional beehive hut

Figure 8.15 Australia -- “Aboriginal hut without its turf covering.”

are truly fascinating. As should be obvious, an historical connection between them is highly unlikely. However, a comparison between the two can be instructive when assessing whether common origin or independent invention is most likely. The first lesson to be learned is that looks can be deceiving -- two designs can be strikingly similar and yet historically unrelated. For one thing, the observatory, unlike the Australian hut, is not a dwelling. For another, it is not at all typical for the culture in which it is a part, where almost all buildings are rectangular in shape.

Moreover, it was designed to serve a very specific, very specialized function, characteristic of the technological orientation of its culture, which has no equivalent in the culture of the Australian aborigines or indeed any hunting and gathering people. Finally, there is no historical record of any connection between the design of an observatory and the design of a dwelling, nor any record of any intermediate types between the two ever having existed.

When we turn to a comparison between Hadza huts and those of Bushmen the situation is radically different. Here too, we find a strong similarity:

Figure 8.16 Hadza Hut

Figure 8.17 Bushmen huts

But in this case the circumstances are also similar, in fact just about identical. In both cases we are dealing with dwellings; they are typical for both groups; they are both typically constructed by females; and they serve identical functions, despite the fact that they were constructed in totally different environments. Moreover, the two groups share a very similar hunter-gatherer lifestyle, along with a very similar, essentially egalitarian, value system. And since the Hadza also live in Africa, suggesting at least the possibility of an historical association at some point in the past, it might not be all that difficult to persuade even the most dedicated anthropological “splitter” that there just might be a connection of some sort between them.

Next, let's consider a cluster of huts from a totally different part of the world:

Figure 8.18 Australian huts

In this case, all the above similarities apply except for one. These huts are not from Africa, but Australia. Because of the vast distance between the two continents, no possible historical connection can be inferred -- unless we are willing to consider common origin, i.e., survival from an ancestral culture common to the ancestry of both groups, prior to a divergence that could only have taken place tens of thousands of years ago.

If, on the other hand, we want to assume that some Australian ancestor independently invented the beehive hut at some point in Australian history, we need to ask ourselves what sort of dwellings might have preceded it, and what their motivation would have been to change to some new design despite their otherwise strictly traditional lifestyle, and why that new design would just happen to resemble a beehive hut.

Also, we would need to ask why so many other groups in so many other parts of the world, and in so many different environments, would make a similar change from a traditionally established dwelling, to “converge” on essentially that same type of beehive design, each with reasons stemming from a different cause, with the similarities to all the other designs purely due to coincidence. (Remember that beehive huts are found in a great many different environments, so convergent evolution due to environmental adaptation won't hold much water.)

Is it Really That Simple?

While it might seem as though a design as “simple” as the beehive hut could have been invented many times in the past, as a convenient means for hunter-gatherers to put together a handy, temporary dwelling, beehive huts are by no means all that simple, and in fact a considerable amount of careful planning and effort goes into their construction.

I propose a thought experiment along the following lines. Hire several teams made up of people from many different backgrounds and cultures, with the sole proviso that none come from cultures where beehive huts are found. Drop each into a different environment where beehive huts are known to have been commonly used in the past. Inform them that they are to live in this environment for at least a week and instruct them to build temporary shelters for themselves, solely from materials normally available to hunter-gatherers, that will hold up decently during that period.

If even a single instance of anything close to a beehive hut is produced I would be extremely surprised. What one would expect to see would be various types of lean-to shelters, or teepees, or crude rectangular designs of various sorts. The closest thing to a beehive hut that such a group might come up with might look something like this, for example:

Figure 8.19 Tierra del Fuego

Here we have a photo of a crude teepee-like framework, covered by skins. A shelter of this kind would be far simpler to design and construct than a beehive hut and yet serve its purpose equally well, I would think.

How to Build a Beehive Hut

Why would anyone interested only in cobbling together something simple and practical, with minimal effort, want to go to the extra trouble of building a shelter that required all the following steps?

Instructions for constructing a beehive hut

(from Home, Home on the Ridge, based on the native American culture of Poverty Point, Louisiana):


Eight willow branches, each 10 feet tall, for the uprights
About eight willow branches for the crosspieces
Bark from the willow branches or string
Lots of palmetto leaves
Indoor hut: a large piece of cardboard for the base, cardboard corner scraps to secure the framework, hot glue gun, and exacto knife
Outdoor hut: post hole digger or a digging stick to dig holes for the framework


1. Use a string and a pencil as a large compass. Draw a circle on either the cardboard (inside) or the dirt (outside.) The diameter of the hut can be as big as you like. Experiment with the different diameters because a larger diameter will result in a shorter hut. All of your willow poles will need to be the same length.

2. Divide your circle into eight equal parts by marking halves, fourths, and eighths.

3. Dig eight holes for your upright poles along the circumference of the circle.
Outside: Use a digging stick just like the Poverty Point people may have done or use a post hole digger to make your holes.
Inside: Hot glue a cardboard corner square scrap along the diameter of the circle where you want the “hole.” Ask an adult to use an exacto knife to “dig” the hole by cutting into the scrap piece of cardboard.

4. Build the upright section of your hut by placing two willow branches in the holes on opposite sides of the circle.
Outside: Stomp dirt back into the hole around the pole.
Inside: Squirt hot glue in the hole before you place the branch in it.

5. Bend the two opposing branches so that they form an arch. Overlap the branches and tie them together at the top with a strip of willow bark or string. Continue with steps 4 and 5 until you have connected all four pairs. Tie the pairs together at the top of the house.

6. Add horizontal crosspieces around the sides of the hut by tying branches to your uprights. The distance between the crosspieces will be determined by the size of your palmetto leaves. The palmetto leaves should overlap each other, so the distance between the layers of crosspieces should be slightly less than the measurement of the palmetto leaves from the stem to the tip. This will probably be about one foot.

7. Leave room between two of the uprights for a door into your hut.

8. Tie a palmetto leaf to the bottom crosspiece. Use the end spikes on the palmetto as string by tearing them all the way to the stem (if they break off, just use the next spike.) Put both palmetto spikes over the crosspiece and then bring them back to the front of the palmetto leaf. Tie the spikes together in a square knot (right over left, then left over right) on top of the palmetto leaf.

9. Continue tying palmetto leaves on the crosspieces, overlapping them so the rain won't get in your house. Each palmetto leaf acts like a little umbrella. When you get all around the bottom level of the house, begin tying leaves on the next level up, making sure that the top leaves overlap the ones on the lower level. Continue adding levels of crosspieces and palmetto leaves until you get to the top!

10. Leave a smoke hole at the top of your house, but DO NOT build a fire in your hut! Remember that the real huts were 12 to 14 feet in diameter.

Figure 8.20 Framework for hut described above.

I rest my case.

1 comment:

  1. I think the best truth about the origin of australian aboriginal people is from southern asia most likely srilanka-maldiv-and southern india,to confirm go ahead to rechearch, it 'll not go in vein.