The desire for one special spot is an essential part of who we are.
Think about the house, trailer, apartment, or patch of land you consider home. The specific sights, smells, and textures conjured by such thoughts vary widely across cultural and economic lines. But the feelings that arise—comfort, longing, a sense of control—transcend boundaries and reveal our shared evolutionary roots, suggests neuroanthropologist John S. Allen. In Home: How Habitat Made Us Human, he draws on primates and prehistory for clues to why and how we developed such a powerful affinity for one place.
Matt Huston is the News Editor at Psychology Today. Before PT, he freelanced for The Philadelphia Inquirer and studied journalism at The College of New Jersey. He joined the magazine as an editorial intern in Summer 2012.
Editor: Muhammad Talha
In the wild, sleep is risky. For apes, temporary nests offer protection from danger—there is evidence that they settle higher above ground when threatened. Nest-building also seems to support better rest. In one zoo study, orangutans fashioned rough “beds” out of nearby materials and slept more soundly than bedless baboons. Orangutans are more closely related to humans, and their example suggests that our prehuman ancestors also had a nesting tendency. By enabling improved sleep, Allen says, early shelters “might have helped support the evolution of a larger brain.”
Being able to concentrate on past events and plan for the future may have played a role in elevating humans above other primates, according to Allen. A place to settle down and escape the outside world allows for a sense of security and an opportunity to exercise these introspective properties—as it could have done many thousands of years ago. “You can tune out,” Allen says. “The external environment becomes less important. What are you left with? The internal environment.”
Primates roam a familiar “home range” and return repeatedly to favorite places. “Over time, however, our ancestors began to focus on and enhance, both in a technological and social way, a particular fix-point,” Allen writes. As prehumans diverged from more ape-like species, they developed more complex group behaviors, sharing fire, food, and childcare in new ways. A stable base of operations likely helped. “You don’t want to leave your child behind with another adult and not be able to find him later,” Allen says. “It’s easier if everybody stays in one place.”