How did the nucleosome, the fundamental building block of all eukaryotic chromatin, evolve? This central question has been impossible to address because the four core histones that make up the protein core of the nucleosome are so highly conserved in all eukaryotes. With the discovery of small, minimalist histone-like proteins in most known archaea, the likely origin of histones was identified. We recently determined the structure of an archaeal histone-DNA complex, revealing that archaeal DNA topology and protein-DNA interactions are astonishingly similar compared to the eukaryotic nucleosome. This was surprising since most archaeal histones form homodimers which consist only of the minimal histone fold and are devoid of histone tails and extensions. Unlike eukaryotic H2A-H2B and H3-H4 heterodimers that assemble into octameric particles wrapping ~ 150 bp DNA, archaeal histones form polymers around which DNA coils in a quasi-continuous superhelix. At any given point, this superhelix has the same geometry as nucleosomal DNA. This suggests that the architectural role of histones (i.e. the ability to bend DNA into a nucleosomal superhelix) was established before archaea and eukaryotes diverged, while the ability to form discrete particles, together with signaling functions of eukaryotic chromatin (i.e. epigenetic modifications) were secondary additions.