Rectangular Longhouses Out of Straw and Mud


    It is fascinating to find that most folk customs in European ethnography can be safely derived from Caucasoid and Palaeo-Negroid roots: parents’ marriage contract, dowry, matrilinear affiliation, hand-axe traditions, agriculture, ancestral and chthonic cults, ascetism, mysteries as well as folk festivals. A consistent link in this typological network is represented also by architecture. We may find a conspicuous structural isomorphism between the modern Saxon half-timber architecture, Frisian wurts, Gothic cathedrals, Neolithic ‘long houses’, Bantu clay houses and Melanesian quadrangular huts. The long quadrangular house ought to be considered as a definite typological unit standing in clear opposition to the Hamitoid round beehive huts (tholoi), Turcoid tall conic post-dwellings (tepees) and the Lapponoidssemidugouts (zemlyankas). The round roofs in Africa are of Mousterian origin, the conic pointed roofs of Levalloisian descent and the oblong rectangular structures of Sangoan or Acheulian provenience.

    The common features of the Palaeo-Negroid long-house architecture include: (a) settlements on dunes, mounds, tells, kitchen middens and other small elevations, (b) large long houses of quadrangular form, (c) wooden timberwork, (d) tall roofs sloping down to the ground, (e) walls from wicker osiers, (f) wickered walls fixed with mud, later with sun-dried clay bricks, (g) mortar made from cut straw and mud, (h) floor from trodden clay, (i) thatched roofs, (j) the galleries along the walls and upper stories used as  bedrooms, (k) clay ovens in the centre, (l) opening in the roof for smoke used as impluvium, (m) rows of pillars dividing the inner room into three or five aisles, (n) side rooms under the roof used as stables for cattle and domestic animals, (o) saddle roofs with decorative gables, (p) boukrania and totem symbols on the gables, (q) main entrances under the front gable, (r) sheltered columns forming outdoor verandas, (s)  head-benches and tripods used as furniture, (t) no cellars and ceilings, space under the roof used for drying onions and other vegetables, (u) descendants’ huts adjoining their parents’ central hut in radial circles, (v) quadrangular palisades and fences around huts and the village, (w) backyards for family clans, (x) men’s and women’s huts for ritual meetings.

    Apart from these common traits the Neolithic peasants’ straw-and-mud architecture displays also several variant styles. One tradition applies long terrace houses with saddle roofs, verandas and pottery with spiral patterns and tripods. This seems to be predominant in Greece, the Danube basin, Central Africa, China and Melanesia. A different style was devised by peasants in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Elam, Turkmenistan and Harappa. Their civilisations preferred labyrinth houses with many cellular rooms. Usually one quarter of a town was formed by a many-room labyrinth concentrated around one central yard. Such quarters were inhabited by one large family, guild or clan, their outer walls were without any windows and neighboured on other blocks of flats, separated only by narrow lanes. The inner windows led to a central atrium or impluvium, the access was through a ladder from above. Originally such houses were subterraneans accessible through chimney-holes and ladders from above. These atrium houses had usually flat roofs and walls of square shape, there were no verandas, only columns inside the rooms. The typical ornament was a chequered matting style. It is of interest that Amerindian farmers of the Hopi and Zun)i extraction built their casas grandes in the Mesopotamian style and applied also the chequered ornament while the Tupí and Guaraní clung to the older saddle-roof tradition. Labyrinth houses may be interpreted as a Neolithic outgrowth of Mesopotamian cultures with b-languages. We suspect that they represent a compromise of the Australo-Negroid quadrangular hut with Asiatic subterranean cave-dwellings.

    The peasants’ farming originated from shifting or fallow agriculture. Neolithic tribes living on corn and fruit prepared their fields by burning forests. The soil soon got exhausted and after three or five years they had to move to new areas. Harvesting festivals or games gave opportunity for initiating 5-year age classes. Young boys and girls got married in collective wedding rites and the whole clan went on a journey to find a new home. The dead were buried in the old huts and the whole village was left as their necropolis or cemetery. After twenty years the exhausted fallow land was able to grow corn again, the ruined or burnt old village was reconstructed and grandsons built a new long house on the old ruins. This explains why most Neolithic sites stood on high mounds (often as much as eight metres high). These mounds were called tell in Mesopotamia (Tell Hassuna, Tell Halaf) and tepe in Iran (Namazga-tepe, Kara-tepe). The highest tell of the Danubians was in Karanovo in Bulgaria, while the Neolithic ‘long houses’ and the Frisian wurts stood only on seaside dunes.

    The typical Bantu house in Congo is an oblong saddle-roof house with bamboo rafters and boughs interwoven into walls. The small square entrance with a very high threshold looks like a low window. These huts have usually outside and inside bamboo pillars forming indoor galleries and outdoor verandas. The inner space is divided into an anteroom and a bedroom. The roofs are usually formed by two thatched sloping planes covered with straw or boughs of palms. Wicker walls are typical of the Kundu, whose house usually stands on an earthwork mound with ramparts. In the Bayanzi villages it was about 2 metres high. The old Bantu often ate their meals in front of their huts and reserved them only for sleeping at night (Frobenius 1933: 227).

    Patterns of the true Bantu architecture are corrupted in South Africa by the Hottentot dome-shaped beehive huts (pontok) and the Zulu conical houses. Farmers tend to build quadrangular huts also in Nigeria, Ghana, Sudan, Morocco, Egypt and oases in Sahara but these dwellings have usually flat roofs and clay walls. The Hehe hut in Tanganyika, called tembe, has subterranean galleries and labyrinths like that of the Mopti in western Sudan and the Figuig in North Africa. We assume that these labyrinth houses may be a hybrid compromise with the Turcoid cave-dwellings, which holds especially for the subterranean dwellings of the Corded Ware cultures in northern Russia and Siberia. The Diola in Senegal, Bamum and Bamileke in Cameron lived in blocks of quadrangular huts whose roofs were sloping down to a central impluvium with a small basin for rainwater.

    The Neolithic farmers of Egypt, Palestine, Mesopotamia and Iran applied   reed matting fastened to posts. The Ubaidans made use of closely tied bundles of reed plastered with mud. Matting huts were common also among the Fayumis and Merimdians in Egypt. Later the reed mats were replaced by pisé consisting of soil, mud or clay tempered with chopped straw, reed and dung, mixed with water and well rammed or trodden into a compacted stuff. In Syria and Anatolia people used walls from wattle and daub. The Danubian ‘long houses’ were of split sapling and wattle. Only later Mesopotamian peasants began to make sun-dried bricks of plano-convex hog-backed shape.





Table 26. Long rectangular wicker houses with thatched roofs

   The Neolithic houses huddled into irregular multi-roomed labyrinth structures with several courtyard centres and small impluvia for each clan and family. One large clan inhabited a quarter of a town fortified by high windowless walls. Quarters separated by narrow lanes could be approached through a gate leading to a courtyard for foreigners. Usually one central parental house grew into a cobweb of adjacent smaller outbuildings and daughter houses filling the space between neighbouring huts.

    Neolithic peasants in China made use of pit-dwellings with walls from interwoven wicker network plastered with mud. They were covered by reed-matting roofs and approached through a ladder from above. Later they were replaced by oblong huts on terraces from trodden mud. The inner room was divided into an anteroom and a bedroom with a khang, a large bed of compacted soil heated with an oven.

    The Melanesian villages are clearings in tropical forests which have a quadrangular form and a round communal house in the middle. The ordinary huts rim the sides of the forest clearing with their quadrangular walls and high roofs slanting down to the ground, being often concealed under the trees. They are usually formed by high roofs supported by several rows of tall posts.

 (Extract from Pavel Bìlíèek: Prehistoric Dialects I. Prague 2004, p. 144-149)