WHY STUDY THE NESTBUILDING BEHAVIOR OF GREAT APES?
Our cultural conscience has a great handicap: it is always split up into sectors, smaller units. We think in terms of separated boxes. Material culture for instance is split up into different time frames. Disciplines focused on vital traditions like folklore studies, ethnology and cultural anthropology have a much wider spectrum of material culture than history and prehistory, because objects produced with ephemeral materials have disappeared, have lost their factual document character.
In the 60ies of the 19th century the study of an architect, Gottfried Semper with name and well known in Germany today had postulated that all 'tectonic art' had its origins in a primary group he called 'textiles'. His famous study 'The Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts' had two volumes published 1860/63. The first dealt with the 'textiles', the second volume with tectonic arts in other materials: ceramics, wood, stone iron/metals. It is important that the term textile was defined in relation to the wider etymology of the term, a considerable spectrum of ephemeral materials (tectum, grass-roof), text, texture, textiles, etc.). And basic for his approach was the observation gained with a great number of examples of tectonic arts in durable materials on which the decorations of their surfaces alluded to prototypes produced in similar ways but with ephemeral materials. There were fibrous plant materials interwoven or basketry style or using ropes and strings and the like. Though this work got quite famous, its influence on the theory of art remained limited. Mainly because Semper's system was vehemently attacked by conventional art historians like Fiedler, Riegl and others. It was considered 'deterministic', negating the subjective (1)
In the mean time however, sources have increased enormously. There are a lot of paleolithic sources, signs, constructs, huts and the like which clearly show that the materials used are ephemere in character. Similarly there are sources in Mesolithic times and particularly in Neolithic, finally in metal periods, an enormous quantity of life trees, in many cultures of the Ancient Near East. Further, the first types of "script" copied signs made with plant materials, evidently territorial signs scratched on clay tablets, very likely for taxing farmers around the early Sumerian cities. But also in Greek and Roman history as well as European Middle Ages sources of this ephemeral type are amply shown.
All these sources suggest the hypothesis that before there were refined monumental techniques of building in stone or producing larger amounts of objects in metals, important processes of cultural evolution had taken place in relation with objects produced with fibrous plant materials with techniques like basketry, weaving, mat forming, binding with ropes and the like. We have compiled a documentation which collected a great number of sources of this type according to time frames as well as of classes of objects characteristic for certain periods.-->http://home.worldcom.ch/negenter/015gDocument.html
Now, if this documentation without doubt gives some justification to the hypothesis that fibro-constructive objects might have played an important role in prehistory, it becomes important to question primatology in this regard.
But primatology confronts us with a surprising situation. In 1929 the Yerkes (Yerkes, R. M. and A. W. The Great Apes) had produced an enormous work of sighting the whole literature on observations in the wild regarding nest building behavior of the Great Apes (Pongids, Chimpanzees, Gorillas and Orangutan (Bonobos not known yet). Though living in quite distant regions all three species were routined nest builders. They all built nests daily resp. nightly to pass the night in their self constructed nest. Two types were distinguished, tree nests and ground nests. This distinction is important, because both types are in environments which are different, playing an important role in regard to human evolution: arboreal space and terrestric space. Arboreal space with its vertically structured movements is the ancient domain of the great apes in general, whereas the terrestric space is an environment to which the Pongids are not really adapted, which they use for dislocation on the ground. But, on the other hand it is the spatial environment in which the evolution finds its exclusive adaption for humans.
This difference is already expressed by the two nest types. The tree nest is essentially atectonic, it is usually produced on 2 or 3 thick branches branching off from the trunk of a tree interwoven with secondary and third size type of branches and twigs to make a stable platform which is finally upholstered with twigs and leaves from the close environment. The ground nest is of a quite different character. Drastically said, it is a primary form of architecture. Plants like bamboo stalks obtaining their topological stability from their rooted "foundations" in the ground are bent in about 2-3 meters height and knotted together to form many stable triangles supporting a tower like structure which offers sufficient stability to allow the often heavy animal to climb up and to finish the platform forming the nest for sleep.
The Yerkes clearly understood this prototypical situation and described nest building as a definite alteration of natural conditions in favour of a new situation with a cultural potential. They called the behavior "constructivity" and saw it at the beginning of an evolutionary line important for the human condition.
Surprisingly this important insight has been cut off by recent primatology favoring a rather poor scientific construct as "ape culture", the "nut-cracking culture" and the "ant fishing culture" (MacGrew)! First, these two activities have been observed fairly rarely in specific conditions. They are not really a routined behavior. Second, both are a specific specifications of food intake which is an extremely specific aspect and can not really be called culture. Of course the fact that it is emphasized in this strange way is due to the historism alluding to modern man as a tool-maker, a concept which has its euphoria in prehistory with paleolithic finds of - fairly questionable - 'pebble tools' and the like.
On the other hand the nest building behavior as observed in the wild by many primatologists is a highly complex behavior which, apart from its constructive capacities involved - and the impacts on physical conditions like precision grip, arm rotation, focus of sight - has important social implications like 1) spatial organization in the nightly group (female with baby in the protected center of the arrangement), 2) the fact that nest building must be learned during about 4-5 years, the mothers being the "teachers". 3) Interesting is also the close relation between mother and child which is expressed in the form of the nest. 4) And very likely the group of nests which remains visible during some months in the natural environment forms an accumulation of signs indicating former nesting or nesting of another group, thus showing some indicator of the territorial system of the great apes.
In other words, the nest building behavior is a quite different thing than nut cracking or ant fishing. It is a behavior which is very complex and which shows many characteristics which can be related to aspects of human culture. Maybe one of the strongest points could be its potential impact on bipedic body posture which might have evolved with the formation of savannas around 8 million years ago in East Africa, favoring the dominance of the ground nest and bipedic posture while building, thus explaining fairly plausibly one of the most striking characteristics of the process of hominisation.
Under (2) you can find a detailed paper with the title 'Ape Architects' which was published in 1983 in German in an architectural journal in Vienna. It shows about 30 illustrations on the topic.
(1) THE METABOLISM OF FORM IN ANTIQUE ARCHITECTURE. Critical Notes regarding Gottfried Semper's theoretical work, its evaluation by the history of art and the significance of his approaches for recent architectural anthropological research.
(2) APE ARCHITECTS - The 'Primordial Hut' of architectural theory and the nest building behaviour of the great apes