Early Humans and Necessity

Erica Wong

Today’s technologically advanced world, according to many people, will lead (and in many cases, has already led) to the demise of the environment and nature the way our ancestors knew it. The pristine, unblemished ecosystems and habitats of centuries and millennia past have presumably been replaced by the wholly artificial and unnatural as part of a perpetual cycle – for example, cars spout toxic exhaust fumes, and the factories which make the steel for the cars also emit unhealthy smoke. We have landfills that are tens of stories high and rampant deforestation due to overdevelopment. With the rise of technology came a decreased emphasis on the quality and the condition of the environment, as well as concern for it. Technology was and is a terrible thing, right?

Not exactly. Today’s technology is not the same as the yesterday’s technology – we find it difficult to think of technology without thinking of electric currents and wires and mechanical cogs. To us, fire isn’t really considered technology, but to early humans it most certainly was. Technology is something that compensates for human shortcomings, and in early time fire did exactly that. The development of technology by early humans was not unequivocally terrible, but instead positive in many ways. In a sense, the difference between humans then and now is that early humans used technology out of necessity, not out of waste.

In his book A Green History of the World, Clive Ponting describes early humans as mainly hunters and gatherers. Their lives were simple in that there was no need to settle down and built permanent housing and buildings – they merely migrated to whatever place had the most plentiful game and fruits/nuts. On the contrary, the lives of these hunter-gatherers were also difficult. Ponting says that hunting was often hit-or-miss – only one out of ten hunts was successful (21), and with human population starting to increase at a significant rate, changes needed to be made. Migrating groups became unwieldy to maneuver due to their increasing numbers, and food supplies based mostly on gathering could have been potentially inadequate and unable to feed everyone. People then began to settle in permanent settlements due to the population pressure, and because they stayed in one place for extended periods of time, they began to use the land they settled to feed everyone. As Ponting notes, agriculture “can provide more food from a smaller area of land” (41). However, he also notes that agriculture is extremely labor intensive, due to responsibilities such as sowing and harvesting. In order to compensate for the fact that humans could not conceivably produce enough food in a timely enough fashion so people would not starve, fire was used extensively. Fire not only allowed people to cook their food thoroughly, preventing illness from eating undercooked game (and, in a utilitarian sense, saved lives and thus, there were more workers available), but also made agriculture much more fruitful. The “slash and burn” technique consisted of people deliberately setting fires in order to infuse the soil with the nutrient rich ash, thus leading to healthier and more abundant crops. In addition, fire was used to make more precise stone weapons, making hunting much more fruitful, as well as served as a source of heat and the centerpiece of cultural rituals and celebrations.

However, some people view fire not as a significant positive achievement, but as something destructive. National Public Radio’s Christopher Joyce blames fire use of early humans for the extinction of numerous megafauna in Australia. Ever since the migration of humans to the region approximately 50,000 years ago, 85% of the megafauna have disappeared. Joyce attributes this to the fact that the appearance of humans led to the appearance of fire. The burning of an already stressed population of vegetation led to the starvation of the megafauna. People also cite fire as the cause for the loss of habitat for many animals and extreme changes in the Earth’s climate. National Public Radio’s Daniel Grossman claims that the Aboriginal climate became substantially more dry 50,000 years ago, again a parallel with the appearance of humans and human created fires. According to this evidence, early human use of fire has been considered the beginning of the deterioration of the environment.

Yet, while I cannot deny the negative impacts of fire, especially with my knowledge of the death and devastation it is capable of today, it is not fair to blame early humans humans for giving “birth” to fire and subsequently destroying the environment. They had no idea that rubbing two sticks together would lead to repercussions in the future, and were only concerned about their own livelihood. This might sound selfish, and to a certain extent, it is. However, early humans did not use fire frivolously, but out of necessity. They had to keep warm and eat well in order to stay alive. Necessity is born from place and time. If someone today who had a heated home chopped down a tree to make a fire in a forest in order to keep warm, we would scoff (and rightly so) at his disregard for the environment.

So are we hypocrites? We criticize our ancestors for doing what they did, but won’t our actions negatively impact future generations as well? Are we conscious of the fact that all the things we hold near and dear and consider necessities, such as cars, will adversely impact our children and our children’s children and so on? We are naïve if we believe that our own actions won’t impact the future. We shouldn’t concentrate on blaming the past for the condition of the present – let’s change the present to protect our future.

Return to ENVS2 homepage

Send message to Swarthmore College Environmental Studies

last updated 2/5/06