• Introduction

    Architecture includes all physical environments built for human use and enjoyment as well as any modification made to a natural environment to meet human needs such as shelter. Over time, the basic need for shelter gave way to architectural developments such as large cities, palaces and monuments, which were built to satisfy other interests of human groups.

    However simple or complex, most dwellings require some basic elements, such as doors, windows, fireplaces or hearths, as well as places to cook food and to rest. More complex buildings can include elements with more specialized functions such as corridors, stairways, platforms and rooms for different uses. Some architectural elements are determined by external factors such as climate or available building materials; but different ways of organizing space and giving it form and function involve specific cultural decisions, and the varied prehistoric architectural styles and traditions found around the globe were based on such decisions.

    The first residences consisted of caves and natural rock shelters that people simply occupied. It is in these places that the oldest evidence of human activity is most often found. The first dwellings that were actually built were presumably made of lightweight, perishable materials, mainly wood and plants, reinforced with layers of mud, but none of these lightweight constructions have survived to this day. Prehistoric dwellings made of stone and adobe, however, can still be found in many parts of the world. Image 1.

    Early examples of these were found in the city of Jericho in Palestine. The remains of that city were discovered within a large mound, called a “tell”, that consisted of successive layers of construction built upon the ruins of the previous ones. The oldest structures in Jericho include a wall and a tower, which have been dated between 8300 and 7800 BCE. Before that time, the geographic area in which the city was found was occupied by the Natufiense culture, which was one of the first in the world to develop agriculture. This culture established the first permanent settlements, which consisted of semi-buried circular dwellings with stone foundations and walls of perishable materials such as wood and plant fiber. The largest of these Neolithic sites was Çatalhöyük, which is located in the south of present-day Turkey. This ancient city contains the first known rectangular constructions, which have a frame of wooden beams filled with mud bricks and covered over with stucco. These dwellings had neither windows nor doors but were all joined together, which meant that the city had no streets as such. The houses were entered through an opening in the flat roof, where a ladder was placed to give access to the interior. Each neighborhood also appears to have had a communal patio that was used as a bathroom and waste dump. Çatalhöyük is not a walled city and is four times as large as Jericho, covering an area of 15 hectares.Image 2

    In addition to the residences of villages and cities, other forms of ancient architecture have been found around the globe. Some of these structures, known as megaliths, consist of enormous blocks of standing stones placed in long lines or large circles. In Europe, megalithic architecture is found in the European Neolithic period and the early Bronze Age, around 4500 to 1500 BCE. Some of these megalithic complexes are associated with tombs and cemeteries, though few actually contain human remains. Judging by the relationships discovered between the position of the stones and the astronomical and solar cycles, these complexes are thought to have had a strictly ceremonial function.

    In the Americas, the first villages were established very early. Studies of marks left on the ground by roof poles have identified ancient dwellings at the Real Alto site on the Pacific coast of Ecuador. These small constructions, dated between 3800 and 3200 BCE, were oval-shaped and built using flexible wooden poles bent over and tied together at the top. Their floors were covered with seashells, which may have been placed to protect residents from the damp ground during the rainy season. Image 3.

    In the Andean region the first permanent settlements appear around 3000 BCE. These sites contain monumental architecture and their inhabitants subsisted mainly on marine products and some farmed crops. Most of these sites are found along the desert coast of Peru and were not cities as such but ceremonial centers with pyramidal structures, platforms and sunken plazas. Sites such as Aspero and Caral (in the Supe River valley), Cerro Culebras and El Paraíso (at the mouth of the Chillón River), and Bandurria (on the north-central coast, Lima department) offer prolific examples of early monumental architecture. The inland Andean valleys also contain evidence of these kinds of structures at sites such as Kotosh (2500 BCE) and La Galgada (2200 BCE), which have architecture similar to that of the coastal sites. A rare example of a simple settlement predating these complex constructions is the ancient fishing village found at Chilca, south of Lima department. In this fishing community, circular huts made of rushes, cane and woven plant fiber mats are associated with a cemetery with a variety of burial practices dated at around 3750 BCE. The remains found here also display the first signs of experimentation with growing crops such as squash and yucca. Image 4.

    In Mesoamerica, the earliest permanent settlements have been dated between 2000 and 1300 BCE and are associated with early agricultural practices. In central Mexico, towns such as Cuicuilco, Zacatenco, El Arbolillo and Tlatilco grew up along the shores of Lago Texcoco. Though some of them later became major ceremonial centers, they probably began as small villages of mud and cane dwellings. Further south in Mexico, in the valley of Oaxaca, is San José Mogote, a settlement dated at 1500 BCE features monumental architecture with plazas and pyramidal platforms of up to ten meters high. Many of these kinds of sites were important ceremonial centers, with the regular population often settling around the perimeter of the places used for traditional activities.Image 5.

  • Lightweight materials

    The first permanent settlements were built with lightweight materials found in the surrounding environment. The Real Alto site on the Ecuadoran coast illustrates the use of such materials, with dwellings that were likely built of cane posts with expansive roofs of palm or other tropical leaves that would keep off the rain like a very large umbrella. Houses here were arranged in a circle around a central patio containing two clay-covered mounds that are thought to have been used for rituals and public ceremonies.

    Some indigenous groups in the Americas still use these ages-old construction methods, including the Kogi people living in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains in Colombia. These people have round houses with high conical roofs that are architecturally complex despite being made of lightweight materials. Their homes are made by leveling the ground at the site and then laying a foundation of stones, which provides a solid base into which posts up to two meters high are inserted to hold up the roof of the dwelling. The roof is also made of plant material, long poles that are tied together at the top and covered with reeds until they form a frame. The walls and roof are then covered with interwoven lengths of cane. Lastly, the roof is covered over with a copious amount of straw, tied in bunches. These dwellings are quite durable and easy to heat, owing to their relatively small size, and the rain runs easily off their sloped roofs. When they deteriorate they are simply abandoned and new one built using fresh materials.

  • Adobe

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    Adobe is one of the most common building materials the world over, and was the building material of choice in most ancient villages and cities. Adobe offers good temperature control as it keeps dwellings cool in hot weather and warm when it is cool. It is also easy to prepare and costs very little.

    Adobe is usually made by adding water directly to a pile of dirt with a good clay content until the desired consistency is acquired. The materials are then mixed by stomping. To prevent cracks from forming as the adobe dries, straw or a similar material is added to the mixture. The adobe is then packed into brick molds and left to dry in the sun for 25 to 30 days. There are of course variations of this technique. For example, while molds were used on the northern coast of Peru, a technique known as “tapia” (filling with stomped mud) was used in the central coast; in other places the adobe was molded by hand. To even out the walls of the dwellings, a layer of mud was often plastered over all adobe walled surfaces from top to bottom, inside and out. Image 1

    One of the most famous and best-preserved mud cities is Chan Chan, an ancient capital of the Chimú kingdom in northern Peru. The city is made of 10 citadels, walled enclosures containing several lesser structures such as small platforms, storehouses, plazas and courtyards. Each of these citadels is thought to represent one of the kings of the Chimú kingdom and to have served as his burial place. While other elements such as stone, wood, cane and straw were also used to build Chan Chan, the city is unique for the extent to which adobe bricks were used; they were even employed for the decorative geometric relief work applied to its walls.

  • Stone

    Stone was one of most common building materials used in the prehistoric period owing to its great strength and solidity; it was also fire-resistant and readily available. However, using stone to build villages and cities required both expertise and a huge amount of labor to extract, transport and position the material. The degree of stone building expertise required depended on the project, which could range from simple—large natural pebbles used for the foundation of a dwelling or for the dry stone wall of a shelter—to more elaborate—such as the precisely-worked blocks used in Inca architecture. The Inca assembled their stone structures with amazing precision, but in the prehistoric period mortar was also commonly used to join blocks in a wall. The technique of building walls by manually positioning material (whether brick, stone or boulders) is called stone masonry, and when symmetrically carved stones are used, it is called “ashlar” or dressed stone masonry. Images 1, 2, 3, 4 .

    One of the most common ways of classifying stone building techniques refers to the way in which the stones are organized in the wall, known as “aparejo”. Thus, rustic aparejo refers to materials that are arranged in a defined order, usually without being worked previously, with the spaces between the stones filled with small pebbles, dirt or waste. In cellular aparejo the stones are arranged to resemble a beehive. Sedimentary aparejo is the most organized form, with the material—often stones that have been previously worked to some degree—arranged in horizontal rows.

    The Inca capital and its surrounding areas boast some of the most sophisticated stone architecture produced in this early period. Most notable about these structures was the enormous size of the stone blocks used, some of which reached six meters high and weighed more than one hundred tons. The result is monumental, and to this day it is not known how these giant rocks were moved and placed on top of one other. The most likely explanation is that a huge labor force was required, aided by logs and earthen ramps. The uniqueness of these structures, represented at sites such as Sacsayhuamán and Coricancha, is found in their precision, with each of the enormous stones fitting tightly in place. The protuberances found on the surface of the stones are thought to have enabled planks to move them while they were carved and set into place. What we do know is that building these structures would have required a host of expert stonemasons working full time to extract, cut, carve and finish these stones. Image 5.

  • References

    • ÁLVAREZ, R., 2008. La arquitectura doméstica en la sociedad Valdivia. Sus implicaciones sociales y culturales, El caso de Real Alto. Miscelánea Antropológica Ecuatoriana, Segunda Época, La Cultura Valdivia y el proceso Formativo ecuatoriano 1: 122-130.
    • BAR-YOSEF, O., 1998. The Natufian Culture in the Levant, Thresholds to the origins of Agriculture. Evolutionary Anthropology 6 (5): 159-177.
    • BONNIER, E., 2007. Arquitectura precerámica en los Andes: la tradición Mito. Lima: Instituto Francés de Estudios Andinos, IFEA – Editorial Lluvia.
    • CASTRO, V., F. MALDONADO & M. VÁSQUEZ, 1993. Arquitectura en el Pukara de Turi. In Actas del XII Congreso Nacional de Arqueología Vol. 1: 79-106, Temuco
    • CON, D. 1988. Los primeros agricultores. In Los primeros americanos y sus descendientes, D. Con, Ed., pp. 33-60. Santiago: Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino – Editorial Antártica.
    • DONNAN, C., 1985. Early Ceremonial Architecture in the Andes. A Conference at Dumbarton Oaks. Washington D. C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.
    • MOOREHEAD, E., 1978. Highland Inca Architecture in Adobe. Ñawpa Pacha 16: 65-94.
    • MOSELEY, M. & A. CORDY-COLLINS, 1990. The Northern Dynasties: Kingship and Statecraft in Chimor. Washington D. C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.
    • REICHEL DOLMATOFF, G., 1985. Los Kogi. Una tribu de la Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Bogotá: Procultura S. A.
    • SANAHUJA, M. & J. GASULL, 1980. La obsidiana: Fuente del poderío de Çatalhöyük. Memorias de Historia Antigua 4: 7-11.

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    Arqueología del Perú by Lizardo Tavera