On the Road Home

A review of The Prehistory of Home, by anthropologist Jerry D. Moore.

Salar de Atacama, Chile. [Photo by Andrew O’Brien]

The sky is cloudless and still, and although the early afternoon temperature is only in the mid-70s, the air is incomprehensibly arid, and the sun intense enough to burn through our shirts. Downslope, heat waves shimmer over Chile’s Salar de Atacama, making the long piles of lithium 20 miles out on the salt flats seem to rise and fall like waves on a white ocean. At 1,150 square miles, the salar is the second biggest playa in the world, and unlike most intermittent dry lake beds, this one is almost permanently absent of water. Next to me, Jerry Moore turns slowly in a full circle, looking for a line of rocks, or a disturbance that might signify there was once an anthropic line within sight. Given that the slope where we are standing is mostly alluvial gravels and rocks, this seems an extravagant hope. “It’s gotta be here somewhere,” he mutters.

We’ve been walking downhill for almost a mile, and Jerry’s sure we’ve already and unknowingly crossed the Inca Road. We turn and head back toward the single tree growing out here on the bajada. Jerry is an anthropologist who for years has been excavating early settlements on the coastal plains of northwestern Peru, near Tumbes, where the Inca Road begins. We’ve previously endured archaeological adventures in Baja California, where he conducted the research for his book The Prehistory of Home. We work well together. I follow lines in space, writing about the process of humans transforming terrain into territory, while Jerry follows lines through time, investigating what the lines once connected, the traces of homes and temples and trade centers. Despite the fact that our trips invariably involve vehicular disasters, we like traveling together. Jerry speaks Spanish, which I don’t. He also packs a folding shovel wherever he goes, an asset as valuable in the desert as a towel is in the rest of the galaxy.

Now we’ve made it to the middle of the Atacama, having so far sustained only one fender bender. The trip is a chance for Jerry to examine some prehistoric Chilean settlements and see the southern end of the Inca Road. That ancient route was actually a network of roads, with two main stems: one started in Quito, Equador, and ran down the eastern side of the Andes; the other started in Tumbes and paralleled the western side of the mountains, cutting through the Atacama on its way to the terminus just south of Santiago. That’s the branch we’re seeking, the Camino de la Costa, which traversed more than 2,500 miles of some of the most difficult terrain on Earth. The Incas were nomads from the highlands of Peru who might have numbered as few as 20,000 souls when they set out to conquer and co-opt large chunks of what is now Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, northwest Argentina, northern Chile and southern Colombia into a single Empire from 1438 to 1533. They held it all together with a network of 25,000 miles of roads that linked together as many as 12 million people on both sides of the Andes.

Consider that the Incas did not have the wheel, but that their network was the largest operational road system in the world until the 19th century. Consider that, where it was used for ceremonies, the road could be as wide as 65 feet and paved for more than a dozen miles. Consider that it had bridges, tunnels, forts, temples and inns along the way, not to mention a spur that climbed astonishingly to Machu Picchu. Consider that we can’t find the bloody thing.

Top: Atacama Desert, Chile. [Photo by Danielle Pereira] Bottom: Detail of Pissis Atlas, Mapa de la Republica de Chile, 1884, showing the Salar de Atacama, in the shadow of the Andes.

That’s because we’re in the Atacama, the driest desert in the world, where in places it won’t rain for centuries. Chile is itself a line, 2,880 miles long and on average only 109 miles wide. It’s so narrow that when flying south into Santiago all you can see are the 20,000-foot-high Andes out your left window and the Pacific Ocean out the right; the country is almost entirely hidden by the body of the airplane. Cultural features in Chile follow this line, too: the Inca Road, the Pan-American Highway, the air corridors. That narrowness, that squeeze between the high mountains and the cold ocean, is why the 600-mile-long Atacama is so dry. The mountains cast a huge rain shadow, and the Humboldt Current, which runs north from Tierra del Fuego to Tumbes, is so cold that it prevents near-shore precipitation. The only moisture is carried by the fog that rolls daily over the coastal mountains. You can walk for days in the Atacama and see not a single blade of grass, a bush, much less a tree. There are places where measurable precipitation has never been recorded and places where stream beds haven’t flowed for 10,000 years. All the consequently exposed stone creates a highly isotropic surface, which is to say it looks pretty much the same in every direction.

Here, however, between the oases of San Pedro de Atacama to the north and Peine to the south, we’re close enough to the Andes that runoff sometimes occurs, although it never reaches the salar. When surface water runs on the alluvials where we’re casting about for the road, it carves shallow channels. In most years, there’s also a trace of underground water. And thus, the single tree we’ve now reached. It’s the only vertical in the landscape and an anchor for our further searching. I take off my pack, swig some water, look around. No sign of stones being pushed into lines.

According to Jerry, the earliest roads in the Andes date back to at least 1000 B.C.; local routes were added to the Incan road network as the empire spread south (just as the Spanish would, in turn, adopt the Inca roads). Pathways in the Atacama have a geographical and environmental logic to them, which in theory should help us find the ancient route. The imperial Incas, like the Romans, favored straight lines, but they were also alert to their surroundings, and usually followed the most energy-efficient routes through landscape. That’s what we’re looking for, a relatively straight line from San Pedro to Peine that avoids elevation gain and loss, just as the modern highway does.

Peine Oasis, Atacama Desert, Chile. [Photo by Carly Lyddiard]

For several years an international effort has been mounted by the World Heritage Centre to protect the Inca Road throughout Peru, Bolivia and Chile. We stopped earlier this morning at the regional office in San Pedro where a woman pulled out rolls of topographical maps on which local sections of the road were marked. She pointed to a site on the turnoff to the village of Camar where there was a tambo, or a roadside installation used by traveling administrators and chasqui, the Inca postal runners. Although the site was unmarked, she thought we could find it. More than the road itself, it’s the tambo that interests us: a place where people would have stopped along the road, lived for a time, and left behind evidence of their daily routines.

Now Jerry doubles back downhill, on a hunch, while I walk a transect in the opposite direction, toward our rental car. Before I get more than 200 yards, Jerry yells. I turn and see that he has his arms stretched out pointing to each side: he’s standing in the middle of the road. When I reach him I don’t see a damn thing until he has me stand right next to one of the rock alignments, and suddenly it snaps into place. The dark rocks have been spread about 12 feet apart. What confirms it are the two rock circles nearby in what is now a shallow wash — the remains of the tambo.

Jerry sets to measuring and sketching the site, taking a GPS reading, writing notes. One circle is about 20 feet across and the other more of an oval, 10 by 16 feet, marking the location of the walls, which would have been stacked a few courses high, then covered with brush for a roof. The sleeping wouldn’t have been luxurious, but adequate. There are trees uphill in Camar, visible from this spot. The water doesn’t often run down here now, but nearby there’s an arroyo that has a seep dampening its southern bank. Centuries ago this would have been a slightly wetter area and a good resting place for the chasqui, who were stationed about 20 miles apart along the road. Still, it wouldn’t have been particularly hospitable territory.

William L. Fox on the Inca tambo, Camar, Salar de Atacama, Chile. [Photo by Jerry D. Moore]

In the wash, between the two rock rings, I find a fragment of pale orange pottery with a red slip applied on the outside and no scorch marks. It’s just smaller than my hand and has a strap handle applied to its gentle curve. From those clues Jerry surmises that it was a water-carrying vessel. He documents the fragment, and I dutifully return it to its original position on the ground. Of all the prehistoric objects I’ve touched around the world, this one has the most emotional resonance. Wherever it was carried and set down at night: that was home.

Jerry heads back to the car, and I try to follow the Inca Road across the slope. It’s hopeless. After the first wash, I lose the rock alignments, or they disappear, or I’m on the wrong track altogether. It’s frustrating, considering how many rocks the Incas moved in South America. Just along the roads there were an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 tambos. Twenty or so miles south of us, in Peine, there’s a large site of both Incan and Spanish remains, a town with beautiful square-cut stone houses marching up a slope alongside yet another one of the streams that flows down toward the playa only to vanish abruptly in the sands. On the northern edge of the town are ruins that stand near the old road. Incan housing and storage units, Spanish corrals and a small church, all constructed from the same stone the town uses today, sit on a bare rocky slope. It’s a world of stone.

“What’s amazing is that you find Incan sites like Peine every 50 miles, all the way north to Colombia,” Jerry has said. “People talk about the Inca Empire lasting a hundred years, but really most of it was done in only 65, the other 35 years just infill. I can’t think of any other expansion done that quickly — even the Roman Empire took 400 years. The Inca Empire might have been the largest coherent building program in such a short period in the history of humankind.” Up and down the ancient road, the tambos served a practical, administrative function, but also a symbolic one, embodying the rapid expansion of the Incan homeland. Jerry’s book won’t be just about the evolution of the home from campsite to house but also about the meaning of homes in the construction of social identity.

Jerry D. Moore, author of The Prehistory of Home (University of California Press, 2012).

The Prehistory of Home

All that and more I learned from Jerry Moore on our trip to the Atacama in 2009. That’s the thing about a good anthropologist: they never stop looking around, thinking about the meaning of what they see, how it all connects. Now it’s 2012, and increasingly I find that where the geographical lines I’ve been following around the world connect — and where my own arc of inquiry starts and stops — is in those dots we call home at the beginning and end of every story. Reading Jerry’s new book, The Prehistory of Home, I’m reminded of the adage that it’s possible to divide narratives into two kinds: the protagonist leaves home on a journey, or the protagonist tries to return home. The fictional image on the book’s cover — rare for a work of archaeology — shows a Navajo earthen hogan in front of a line of contemporary subdivision homes. It’s clearly photoshopped, but it’s perfect for the book, and it reminds me why I value traveling with Jerry. The reason to be on the road is to understand what it is to be home.

Jerry and his family — his anthropologist wife, Jan Gasco, and their son, Nathan — appreciate the Indiana Jones movies as much as anyone I know. And those retro cinematic adventures played no small part in my own son’s decision to become an archaeologist. But most of us know that the real work of archaeologists, and more broadly anthropologists, doesn’t involve unearthing lost civilizations and battling hostile marauders for treasures of jade and gold. As Jerry defines it, “Archaeology is an attempt to use material evidence to document and understand the human experience.” Much more of human life occurs at home than in temples and tombs, not to mention lost arks. He continues: “I have written about the prehistory of home because the human home is the place where so much culture occurs, and it has had a recurrent place in human cultures over vast distances of time and space.” The book is his attempt, and a brilliant one, “to engage the reader with an archaeology of human experience by connecting events and sites that are ancient and distant to lives and places that are current and near.” That’s what we were doing in the Atamaca, and why Jerry was far more excited about having found the tambo than the remains of the Inca Road. Those small structures built as rest stops for the empire’s messengers were a kind of ephemeral home.

Reading The Prehistory of Home is very much like traveling with Jerry, sans automobile mishaps. The book ranges from Turkey’s Anatolia to Lancaster, California, from Aaron Spelling’s mansion in Beverly Hills to the Kalahari windbreaks erected by the !Kung San — and with the narrative suffering not so much as a flat tire. Although the oldest home Jerry has excavated is only 6,000 years old, he draws connections between temporary encampments set up by hominids 1.4 million years ago and the foreclosure crisis of today. What ties it all together is his observation that, although many species construct shelters, humans are the only species to erect such a diverse variety of dwellings in response to local conditions.

Top: Archaeological dig at Çatalhöyük, Anatolia, Turkey. [Photo by Scott D. Haddow] Middle: Portaledge, Condor Cliff, Patagonia, Chile. [Photo by Sergio R. Nuñez C.] Bottom: Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde, Arizona. [Photo by Markusnl]

Jerry loves puns. What anthropologist doesn’t? Each chapter relies on contemporary terminology to provide a rubric, so “Mobile Homes” follows the shift from nomadic to sedentary living, and “Gated Communities” takes on the history of walled cities. It’s obvious, then, that he had to open the book with “Starter Homes,” which explores how hominid campsites improved on the shelters of various other species. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins considers the construction of animal shelters — dens, nests, burrows, webs — to be examples of “extended phenotypes,” the cultural expression of a genetic objective, in this case survival. That’s a way of saying genetic material can be expressed externally and can thus modify the environment. Jerry points out, however, that unlike species constructing virtually the same shelter over and over again as directed by hardwired behaviors, humans deploy a huge variety of methods to transform fire, tool and shelter into home.

In “Mobile Homes,” which starts with a description of the “portaledges” deployed by climbers on the granite walls of Yosemite during multi-day ascents, he explores the spectrum of homes developed by hunter-gatherers and nomads before the onset of settlements. He quotes archaeologist Deni Seymour: “For mobile groups the arrival at a residential location involves an appraisal of the character of a place. … Thus, it is a ‘selection’ of place rather than a ‘creation’ of place that differentiates mobile groups [from sedentary ones].” Jerry adds that the houses built by Paleolithic hunter-gatherers at least 25,000 years ago were essential for expanding human presence into higher latitudes. The construction of homes had by then become more than a survival strategy; it was a way of mapping the growing home range of groups.

In the 1990s photojournalist Peter Menzel directed a project, Material World, that documented the household goods of families living in 30 countries. He presented portraits of each family outside their home with everything they owned arrayed around them in what he called “The Big Picture.” They all had one thing in common: no matter their culture or economic status, there was no way any of the families could transport by foot everything they owned. That’s the reason Jerry gives, in the chapter “Durable Goods,” for the transition from nomadic living to sedentarianism. It wasn’t the shift to agriculture — plowing fields — that led to people settling down, but the accumulation of stuff, such as large grinding stones. Although the shift occurred at different times and in varying ways around the world, “When societies began to base their year’s food supply on plants seasonally harvested and stored, or when heavy tools were necessary to render food edible, people became sedentary.”

Throughout the chapter Jerry overlays this prehistoric trend with an accounting of how much stuff Americans accumulate and move each year, and then describes how he, Jan and Nathan have overfilled their house with mementos from around the world. And that becomes the springboard for a discussion of how we assemble tokens of our existence, and use our homes as metaphors for the larger world in which we live. When people become sedentary, the impulse to express life in symbols becomes increasingly strong. The cosmological symbols first expressed as rock art were brought onto the walls of the earliest homes. The hogan on the cover of the book is a circular structure that unifies “male and female spaces linked by the solar circuit,” as indicated by the solar orientation of the east-facing doorways. Millennia later, the structure of contemporary society is expressed in the architecture of a ranch house. As Jerry writes, the “American ranch-style house is a refuge, distancing private spaces from public zones, parents’ bedrooms from children’s rooms, and secreting bodily functions in the deepest recesses of the house. And as such houses grew larger and larger, the American mega-house became a refuge not only for the family as a social unit protected from the outside world, but as refuge for individual family members from each other.” I can’t think of a more cogent unfolding of the essential differences between two societies occupying the same terrain over time than that written in this chapter and proposed graphically on the cover.

Top: Leisure World, Seal Beach, California. [Photo by Matthew Avery] Middle: Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. [Photo by Sam Wise] Bottom: Inca tambo, Runkurakay Pass, Peru. [Photo by Teddy Sipaseuth]

By this point, a quarter of the way into the book, it is apparent that three narrative threads are being woven together: Jerry’s life as an anthropologist, the history of archaeology itself, and the prehistory of the home. The remaining chapters range broadly — from the “apartment dwelling” constructed 9,000 years ago at the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük to communal living in the pueblos of Chaco Canyon; from the “gated communities” of Mesopotamia to the contemporary retirement community of Leisure World in Orange County, California; and frm the “noble houses” and “sacred homes” used as seats of power and meditation from prehistory to the present. Worshipping in homes of the dead, keeping the home fires burning, the heroic journey home: each cliché is turned on its head and excavated for new meaning.

Early on, Jerry observes, “Archaeology is not, by and large, an experimental science. With few exceptions, it is impossible to replicate the conditions and observations that led to an inference or discovery.” He cautions the reader to remember that doubt is ever-present in the archaeological record. The earth itself moves objects around and rises and lowers their bearing strata; humans often re-inhabit sites over millennia and disrupt the evidence. By offering up his own family life as a site for contemporaneous examination, critiquing his career and his wife’s, and guiding us through a history of archaeology, he conducts an ensemble of narrative instruments that provides a unique opportunity to understand how we construct the past in order to ponder the present.

While reading The Prehistory of Home, and writing this essay-review, I was constantly interrupted by memories of standing in that ephemeral Atacama stream bed, looking down at the remains of the two tambo, those modest lodgings for the itinerant functionaries of the Incan empire. And that, in turn, led me to think about all the houses and apartments in which I’ve lived and managed to convert into homes by the accumulation and display of stuff — inevitably and most significantly, shelves of books, piles of hiking and climbing equipment, artwork. At the end of the book, I found myself wondering how much could I carry from tambo to tambo as a wandering writer. In a sense, to inhabit a home is an opportunity to live mindfully within one’s own brain. Jerry’s book is a road from home to home. Surely I could carry at least that one volume along with my hat, a bottle of water, and the ever-useful folding shovel.

Editors' Note

Jerry D. Moore’s The Prehistory of Home was published in April by the University of California Press.

William L. Fox, “On the Road Home,” Places Journal, July 2012. Accessed 21 Mar 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/120723

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