Homo erectus skull found on Java in Indonesia in 1969
Homo erectus skull found on Java in Indonesia in 1969

In the Beginning

  • What is the origin of architecture? When, where, and why did humankind begin to design and construct buildings?
  • No one knows, exactly.
  • Written records from the Paleolithic (the time period from approximately 2.6 million to 11,650 years ago) are obviously nonexistent, and not one building of that age has survived intact.
  • Given the dearth of ready information, scholars of prehistoric architecture long had to fall back on educated guesswork.
  • An 18th century French priest, the Abbé Marc-Antoine Laugier, famously theorized that our ancestors learned how to build by imitating nature—so tree trunk became column, branch became beam, leaf became roof.1
  • Today, fields of study and scientific tools that did not exist in Laugier’s time—such as archaeology and anthropology, DNA extraction and carbon dating—regularly provide fresh insights about the evolution of humanity and architecture.
  • The story of early architecture, like the story of human evolution, is based on a limited (but growing) knowledge base.

Human Evolution and Migration

  • We know that our distant hominin relatives took shelter in trees, though fossil remains suggest that some of them had begun to walk upright, and therefore lived at least partially on the ground, as early as 7 million BC.2
  • The available evidence shows the first members of our own genus, Homo, living in Ethiopia 2.8 million years ago.3
  • Archaic human species such as Homo erectus migrated around and out of Africa in successive waves, possibly reaching China as early as 2.1 million years ago.
  • Homo sapiens, the anatomically modern human species, debuts in the fossil record around 300,000 BC, in Africa.
  • From Africa, Homo sapiens migrated to the rest of the world, interbreeding with archaic human species such as Homo neanderthalensis along the way.
  • Homo sapiens may have reached Australia as early as 63,000 BC and North America by 22,000 BC—possibly as early as 128,000 BC.
  • By the end of the Paleolithic, around 10,000 BC, Homo sapiens was the only surviving species of the genus Homo‍.

Social Formation

  • Archaic human physiology and society went through developmental processes not unlike those of children.
  • Over time, our ancestors gained skills that distinguished them from other animals, including the ability to walk upright, to communicate through speech, to use and make tools, and to work cooperatively.
  • To feed themselves, they foraged edible plants, fished, scavenged, and hunted wild animals.
  • They also began to control and make fire for cooking, warmth, and light.
  • The size and complexity of the archaic human brain increased with greater access to nutritious food, tripling in size over the course of million of years.
  • Between 100,000 and 30,000 years ago, the human brain attained its modern, globular form, and at the same time fully modern behavior emerges.

From Habitat to Home

  • Forming a ring of stones into a hearth counts among the most primal acts of placemaking.
  • For millions of years, our ancestors lived in the open in small groups called bands, and building a fire would have provided a focus for activity and sense of security.
  • Bands moved within a relatively set territory, making camp near freshwater springs and streams, stashing food and tools in secure locations for later use, and where possible taking shelter under cliffs and in caves.
  • Their migratory range would increase or decrease to help maintain contact with neighbors, avoid conflict with them, and limit strain on resources.
  • Territoriality notwithstanding, there was no concept of private property, and little in the way of social hierarchy.
  • Prehistoric Homo sapiens treated certain spots as home bases for hunting and foraging, staying at them for a season or even year-round.
  • Other places were significant for ritual or spiritual reasons that aren’t always obvious to the modern observer, such as the dramatic acoustical properties of a cave.

The First Builders

  • Over time, our ancestors learned to make basic shelters such as windbreaks and lean-tos to protect themselves against the elements—humanity’s first step toward the development of architecture.
  • Given the mobile nature of life in the Paleolithic, most handmade shelters would have been temporary or reusable.
  • Construction would have depended upon materials readily found in nature, such as stones, mud, tree limbs, grasses, and animal bones.


  1. Marc-Antoine Laugier. Essai sur l’architecture. Paris:  Chez Duchesne, 1753.
  2. B. Senut et al., “Palaeoenvironments and the Origin of Hominid Bipedalism,” Historical Biology 30, no. 1–2 (February 17, 2018): 284–96.
  3. Brian Villmoare et al., “Early Homo at 2.8 Ma from Ledi-Geraru, Afar, Ethiopia,” Science 347, no. 6228 (March 20, 2015): 1352–55.