Early Humans: Affected by their Environment

Peter Brennan

            Since the dawn of man, when the first less-hairy apes began to walk upright, humans have affected their environment.  Early humans helped the preferential selection of some flora through their gathering, hunted, and eventually manipulated fire to burn forest.  However, the ways humans interact with and affect our environment today are very different.  Some aspects of early humans’ interaction with their environment, like fire and the domestication of dogs, seem to have affected mankind more than vice versa.  Without considering the effects of the interactions, even the character of early humans’ interaction with the environment is quite different.  At some point humans transitioned from living in their environment, to living around it; from it being their home, to their house; from it affecting them, to them affecting it.    Even the term environment illustrates our modern sense of being disconnected from nature.  The origins of this transition can be seen when early humans first begin making technological use of their environment, utilizing technologies like domestication and fire manipulation.  It was in this way, forging technological relationships with their environment, perhaps as a result of language, that humans began to rise out of their environment, becoming a foreign force, and affect it more artificially.

            One important example of how early humans were perhaps not as much the agents of change as the environment is the domestication of wolves into dogs.  There is some scholarly debate over when exactly this occurred, with some estimating as far back as 135,000 years, and archaeological evidence from 14,000 years, with a commonly-agreed upon period of 40-50,000 years.  However, of more contention than the exact date of domestication, is the method, or motive.  The tameability argument suggests that more docile wolves were adopted as pups for companionship and hunting by hunter-gatherers.  This may have happened simply because of the cuteness factor.  Humans found the baby wolves cute and decided to bring them in.  Perhaps we chose wolves and not some other animal with cute cubs, like bears, because wolves had compatible sense to humans, with superior hearing, smell and loud early-warning systems.  In addition wolves are nocturnal, able to guard campsites while humans sleep, and can always be killed for food in hard times.  In contrast, the trainability argument postulates that wolves were never docile enough to be adopted by humans, and they domesticated themselves by following campfires, scavenging for food, and becoming less fearful of people.  After all, domestication is a difficult process, requiring much time and effort, if not forethought, and its hard to imagine that hunter-gatherers could have foreseen the payoff of dogs from wolves.  An experiment on tameability was conducted by Dmitry K Belyaev, a biologist at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk, Russia.  In his experiment he spent years domesticating the silver fox, using tameability as the sole criteria of selection.  Starting with 45,000 foxes, after 40 years they were left with 100 completely tame foxes with floppy ears and white-tipped tales.  This is a terribly low yield, especially with today’s technology, and it’s hard to imagine many dogs coming out of a process like this occurring independently in small hunter-gatherer settlements.  The wolves seem to have taken the more commanding role in the domestication of dogs than humans, at least in the beginning; trainability over tameability.  In essence it was probably a slow mixture of both, starting with the wolf following campfires, slowly building up his understanding of humans, and eventually having humans recognize the potential technological use of the dog, and taking an active role in domestication.  It was this transition, from the wolf wanting the human to the human wanting the wolf, that shows early humans grasping the technologies around them, and becoming modern humans

            When the first Homo Erectus man happened upon a lightning-struck bush and was burned, he had discovered perhaps the most essential tool humans would wield, and opened the book of which we are now the authors.  Of course, that H. Erectus didn’t get much more than burns from his fire, and probably never started any of his own.  Nevertheless, fire, from its naturally occurring state, had an enormous impact on the path of humans.  Early humans used fire in a variety of ways, from cooking and drying meats, to clearing forest land.  The clearing of forests was especially important and widespread for early humans.  Clearing out the underbrush would open meadows, allow for greater mobility, and a safer and more productive hunt.  This kind of fire use clearly affects the environment, changing the characteristics of forests, favoring certain trees with thick bark, and enriching the soil for foraging.  This sort of interaction might be thought of as destructive, but it didn’t eliminate forests, only changed them, just as a climate change would.  However it is very reminiscent of modern man’s affects on nature, and is indicative of the transition to a more artificial position in nature.  Starting fires for land clearing, especially in a dense forest, is a very difficult task, akin to lighting a bag of wet socks with a match.  This kind of task would require communication, and an oral tradition or understanding of the cultural technology, and therefore language.  According to Clive Gamble, an Archaeologist at the University of Southampton, H. Erectus had a 15 minute culture with no innovation or change, and only with the onset of language does technology change.  Essentially, while H. Erectus might have used fire, it was used in rudimentary manner lacking depth of development, much like his quickly-fashioned, quickly discarded hand-axes.  H. Erectus maintained these elementary uses of technology throughout their existence, never refining much.  Then, around 40,000 years ago we get the development of language and grammatical speech in H. Sapiens, kicking off the transition.  In essence the transition lies between the H. Erectus burning some meat at a fire, and a group of H. Sapiens lighting parts of a forest to flush out animals and clear land.  With language, early humans developed fire into a technology of theirs, and began to change the way they perceived and interacted with their environment.

            While humans have always affected their environment, the character of that interaction changed distinctly between early humans and modern humans.  With the onset of language humans began to use their environment technologically, noticing the wolves by their campfires and domesticating them while burning forests to clear land.  This change, this depth of development initiated the transition in early humans to how we think of ourselves today, as foreign agents in the environment rather than native ones. 


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last updated 2/5/06