Early Humans and their Environment

John Pottage

Modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) and their ancestors (Homo sapiens & Homo erectus) have existed on earth for a combined three and a half million years (Ponting, p. 18). During that time, a series of complex interactions occurred between humans and their surrounding environment that continue to shape the world in which we live today. In studying these interactional processes, one viewpoint has been that, as humans have experienced dramatic increases in their technological understanding and capabilities, they have simultaneously instigated a series of harmful events by which the environment has been negatively impacted. There is, indeed, much truth in this argument: throughout their brief (geologically speaking) history, humans have caused much harm to their surrounding natural resources. Much evidence of this human destruction can be seen today. Air pollution, caused by the fumes generated from man-made automobiles, airplanes, and factories, is a significant problem for many large cities. The natural rainforests of South America are constantly under threat of disappearance as they continue to be destroyed by humans for economic purposes. Finally, many species of living creatures have become endangered or extinct due to excessive hunting by humans, such as the bald eagle, the American buffalo, and the infamous Dodo bird.

Early humans also caused much harm to the environment, often in ways that are similar to those of their modern counterparts. These early humans, living in hunter-gatherer societies, quite frequently overhunted animals to the point of extinction. For instance, humans living on the Aleutian Islands in the north Pacific hunted the sea otter exclusively until "it was virtually extinct and the subsistence base of the community destroyed" (Ponting, p. 34). Early humans also dramatically affected their environment through the clearing of forests. In New Guinea, researchers have found 30,000 year-old evidence of "forest clearance by felling, ring barking, and the use of fire" (Ponting, p. 33). Later research on the effect of the clearance of such large areas of forest has suggested that these techniques could lead to dramatic climatic changes with extreme consequences for the environment (NPR broadcast, March 17, 2002). The development of agriculture by early humans, roughly 10,000 years ago (Ponting, p. 19), was also harmful to many natural ecosystems as they were systematically destroyed and replaced with artificial versions (Ponting, p. 33). This single-minded view that the only effect upon the environment of humans and their ancestors is destruction, however, is greatly limited by the fact that it fails to account for the many ways in which humans have attempted to counter their destruction, the positive effects humans have had on their environment, and the role played by the environment in shaping the experience of humans.

To argue that early humans always had a negative effect on the environment, and that they did nothing to prevent, buffer, or counter their harmful actions, would be to ignore crucial evidence suggesting the contrary. While it is true that many groups of early hunter-gatherer societies overhunted species to extinction, some were able to devise ways to prevent excessive, exclusive hunting. For example, the Cree in Canada used "a form of rotational hunting, only returning to an area after a considerable length of time" (Ponting, p. 32). This technique allowed the animal populations to recover in number from the decreases they experienced during hunting season. Other cultures used "totemic restrictions on hunting particular species at certain times of the year or a pattern of only hunting an area every few years" (Ponting, p. 32). In these examples, humans were able to benefit from the food of their prey, while simultaneously protecting these animals from extinction. Similar techniques were employed in the gathering of plants and nuts from the surrounding environment: "The gathering of food did require very detailed knowledge and considerable understanding of where resources could be found at different times of the year so that the annual round of subsistence activity could be organised accordingly" (Ponting. p. 32). Gathering, when occurring on a specific, regular rotational schedule, served to maximize the yield of the targeted food source without draining an ecosystem of one particular resource.

There are also examples of humans having a positive impact on the environment in which they live. One such example is the symbiotic relationship between humans and dogs. Though the exact date is debated, dogs are thought to have been domesticated by humans approximately 12,000 years ago (Pennisi, p. 1540). Domestication clearly benefited early humans: dogs were able to provide protection as watchdogs, barking loudly whenever a predator approached; they were able to locate food and return it to their masters while out hunting; they could be a resource in warfare, using their sharp teeth to attack hostile tribes; and they could serve as friendly companions to humans, as modern studies reveal the special receptivity of dogs to human cues (Pennisi, p. 1542). A case can also be made that dogs benefited from their relationship with humans. Life with early humans afforded dogs greater protection from wild predators than would be possible if they were roaming the environment on their own. Humans also provided a steady source of food, without requiring the dog to search and kill its prey by itself (a time during which the dog would be particularly vulnerable to an attack). Domesticated dogs, now that they were guaranteed the protection, shelter, and food provided by humans, were able to focus more on producing and caring for their young. As a result, their species thrived and grew tremendously so that, in present times, the number of dogs greatly exceeds the number of their wild counterparts: the relatively scarce wolf. The symbiotic relationship between humans and dogs provides a good example of how early human interaction with the environment could be beneficial for humans, as well as for the environment (the dogs).

A more lighthearted example of mutually beneficial interaction is a story from Cambridge University (Professor Carr Everbach, Swarthmore College, personal communication, February 4, 2002). In one particular room of the university, a 100-foot wooden beam was used to support the roof. In anticipation of its decay over time, the directors of the construction project planted several trees of the same type that was used in the room. When the time finally came for the board to be replaced (about 400 years later), there was a patch of approximately ten trees that were ready to be used. In this case, the humans benefited with the construction of the university and the use of the trees in replacing the support beam. The environment benefited in that, while the trees were growing and awaiting their human use, they provided homes for nearby animals, birds, and insects, as well as many other positive benefits that come from a thriving, rich, protected forest. Presumably, when the replacement trees were used, more trees were planted to prepare for the future. As these trees develop for future generations, they would beneficially serve the environmental in much the same way. The Cambridge University support beam thus represents a case in which human planning created several benefits for the environment, rather than simply destroying it.

Just as humans have impacted the environment, the environment has also influenced humans. One example of this two-way interaction is fire. Human experience with fire, first with those created by random lightning strikes, then later ignited by the sparks of banging stones, eventually resulted in their gaining control of it. Fire allowed humans to survive in colder environments, making possible the migration into colder climatic areas of the world. Fire also granted protection to early humans, as it served to help keep predators and insects away from their camps. Some researchers have also theorized that fire help spark the beginnings of human communication, culture, and society, as humans could gather around a large campfire and interact with one another (McCrone, p. 34). Fire, as an agent of the environment, thus served to greatly influence the development of humans over time.

The relationship between humans and the environment is complex, multifaceted, and bi-directional. While it is true that, over the course of their time on this planet, humans have had many significant negative effects on the environment, events to the contrary are often overlooked. Some early hunter-gatherer societies attempted to counter their negative impact on the environment by hunting or gathering on a rotational schedule. There are also examples of situations in which the humans altered the environment in a positive way, as in the case of domesticated dogs and the Cambridge University board. So, too, has the environment affected human life: fire is a major example of how human society changed, evolved, and migrated as a direct result of environmental forces. The ever-changing nature of the relationship between humans and the environment will continue to result in both positive and negative outcomes for each, and will continue to be a central issue in determining the length of human survival.

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last updated 2/20/03