The Role of Culture

Reshma Pattni


Humans are a unique animal. We have characteristics that are not fully shared by other species that have allowed for us to take on the dominating role we currently hold. Humans have developed and use a complex verbal and written language, can engage in complicated problem-solving, have a working memory, and a unique sense of self-awareness. Perhaps due to these distinctive characteristics, humans participate in a variety of different cultures throughout the world and throughout history.

While discussing the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to agriculture-based civilizations during class, we brought up the role culture plays within each of these contexts. Culture was defined as a set of practices or rules that people impose on themselves and others in the group in order to govern choices and decisions made. It is hard to know how advanced the development of culture is at these different levels of social evolution, but it makes sense that early culture was probably developed to meet the biological needs of the community. We came to believe that a simple culture was followed within hunter-gatherer populations. It is logical that a plan that assigns people to specific, necessary roles within society was formed. Hunting and gathering gave rise to agriculture perhaps because of hunting and gathering’s inability to sustain the growing populations. It could also have been a more gradual transformation caused by the recognition of higher profits in gathering attempts and the inefficiency of hunting. Not much is known about the culture within hunter-gatherer societies, so it is hard to determine how the culture changed the group's relationship to the environment.

Agricultural societies offered a very different situation with regards to social roles. Agriculture called for a break up of time and work that was unlike that of hunter-gatherer groups. There was a lot of hard work to be done by a few, which left others to pursue other tasks and potentially specialize. Also, it justified a social hierarchy that is thought to be unlike social ranking systems of the past. These developments allowed for a more permanent residence to be established and provided an excess of time that did not need to be spent directly seeking sustenance. All these factors appear to have led to a great change in the values and customs related to a general culture. It is specualted that the extra time brought about the greater organization of religions and the arts. What most fascinates me regarding significant changes in culture is the long-term implications of how a culture dictates what choices are made and how it regulates a community’s perception of their relationship with the world around them. As a group that establishes a permanent home, it is useful to see how staying in one place affects the environment around them. Most notably from our readings were the effects of deforestation caused by clearing land for farming and the importance of wood for many purposes within the community. Easter Island is a prime example of the negative effects an established community can have on their surrounding environment.

The article on Easter Island was very moving. I was unable to understand how some people do not see the obvious parallels between what their society did and what we are currently doing to the environment. Easter Island was a virtually inaccessible island in the Pacific Ocean that was at one point in history populated by a flourishing civilization. As Ponting describes, Easter Island is “a striking example of the dependence of human societies on their environment and of the consequences of irreversibly damaging that environment.” The people were originally Polynesian and arrived at the island by traveling in double canoes. They created a very advanced society with access to only a very limited range of resources. The climate of Easter Island made it difficult to grow most plants, and most of the animals on the island had been brought by the people. With time though, the people figured out a simple diet that allowed for a large amount of free time. The people prospered and created a system of family clans each of which had their own specific religious shrines. Rituals and ceremonies became central to life on the island and as it was manifested in their communities, required the building of huge platforms and statues. Unfortunately, the people on Easter Island failed to consider their effect on the delicate ecosystem. They completely deforested the island and were left with even fewer resources than they had started with. The separate clans had to guard what little resources they had and became engaged in continual combat. The people eventually were forced to turn to cannibalism. Ultimately, the groups were unable to sustain themselves or the environment around them.

The story of Easter Island is a shocking one, and it is essential to our well-being that we acknowledge the similarities between then and now. Resources were used without regards to the future and how they were damaging the environment. Greed and the desire for social prestige dictated decisions. I would not doubt that there were people on Easter Island who questioned what the inhabitants were doing to the environment, but their voices went unheard. According to Ponting’s article, it appears as though the deforestation happened very suddenly, but I cannot believe that the people on the island did not notice the dwindling amount of trees growing on the island. Despite this, they continued to cut them down for their own selfish needs. This is incredibly similar to what groups of people have done throughout history. We used wood and deforested extensively even after we realized it was becoming scarce. Only the economics of the situation caused people to slow down, and there is potential that we will run into the same problems with oil. I wonder what it will take for humans to realize the damage they are causing the environment and to have this be enough impetus to change the way society works.



Ponting, Clive. A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations. St. Martin's Press, New York, 1991. ISBN 0-312-06989-1, McCabe GF75.P66 1992 pp. 1-7.



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