Reciprocal Nature:

The Two-Way Street Between Early Humans and Their Environment

Stacey L. Prow

“Everything is good in leaving the hands of the creator of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762)

The romanticized view of the primitive hunter-gatherer lifestyle has been prevalent since the 18th century, when the political theorist and philosopher Rousseau espoused writings asserting a romantic notion of primitive people unhindered by the trappings of civilization.   This contemporary view has been revisited countless times in anthropological journals and Hollywood movies alike.  Although contemporary societies wish to ascribe idyllic and noble qualities to hunter-gatherer people that remain in commune with nature, even technologically primitive humans manipulated their surroundings and affected drastic changes in the environment.  Even though some recent research has emphasized the effect of early human on their environment, the relationship between man and nature is a two way street.  The idealistic sentiment that surrounds primitive humans biases interpretation about how drastically the environment shaped the social and subsistence practices of these groups.

As Clive Ponting points out in A Green History of the World, hunting and gathering was the basic form of subsistence until the development of agriculture about 10,000 years ago1.  Long before the advent of agriculture, humans have been managing and manipulating their environment since the emergence of the modern landscape2. There is plentiful evidence that the Aboriginal tribes of the central region of Australia drastically changed the surrounding environment by the practice of burning, used by tribesmen to hunt larger fauna.  There is much debate over the cause of megafauna extinction during the Holocene era.  Over 85 percent of large animals – like the giant sloth and sabertooth tiger – went extinct in Australia about 50,000 years ago3.  About the same time, early humans arrived in Australia in a more temperate environment than is currently seen in the arid interior of the continent.  Archeological evidence shows that there was a drastic change in plant life during that time period although Aboriginals were not engaged in agriculture4.  It is believed that the burning practices of aboriginal hunters caused the extinction of numerous plants and animals by altering the water cycle of the area and, subsequently, the climate of most of the region4.  This provides the first evidence that even technologically primitive humans may have significantly altered the environment.

As Ponting points out, gathering and hunting as a way of life has been restricted to a handful of groups in the world that have been forced to occupy marginal habitats by the advance of modern technology and agriculture1.  Some aboriginals in Australia continue to resort to traditional means of subsistence, although they now occupy only small lands in the central deserts and northern territory regions.  Ponting notes that many aboriginals used to live in the more productive regions of eastern Australia; however, recent scholarly debate discusses whether Aboriginal tribes would be able to survive on hunting and gathering alone in these environments.  There is some evidence that suggests that hunting and gathering societies, including the Aboriginals in northeastern Australia, would have to supplement their food source with agriculture5

Early humans faced differing selection pressures depending on the environment in which they were located.  Early work focusing on hunting and gathering groups in tropical environments found no archeological evidence that these groups were able to survive without some dependence on agriculture5.  Although the evidence is not definitive, if humans have only been able to survive in tropical forest habitats since the introduction of agriculture, our perception that foragers were adapted to a wide range of habitats may be called into question.  The idyllic view of hunting and gathering groups as integrated with their environment would have to be somewhat attenuated.  We often think of these groups coexisting with the environment; however, this view minimizes the impact of the environment on the habitat range and social practices of early humans.

As referenced by Ponting, research in the last 30 years has changed the common view of hunting and gathering from one of mere brutish survival to one that emphasizing the relative ease of food gathering, stressing the integration of the cultures and their environment.  Despite the stylized view of primitive hunter-gatherer societies, the environment played a large role in the population structure and habitat range of these groups.  Due to the limitation of resources, infanticide was a common practice among these groups, sometimes killing up to 40 percent of the female population as a means of population control and continued survival of the group1.  Elderly members of the group that were considered a burden may have been shut-off from the group to alleviate some of the stress on the ecosystem.  These socially constructed customs illustrate the extent to which the environment impacted the lives of hunter-gatherer groups.

The earliest humans inhabited a variety of habitats – mostly grassland and forest - in a belt of semi-tropical and tropical landscapes stretching from Ethiopia to southern Africa1.  The range of early humans may have been perturbed by their inability to sustain themselves even in productive environments until the advent of domestication and agriculture. The variation in sustenance practices among Aboriginals shows how important the environment was to their way of life.  The reconsideration of the role of hunting and gathering in tropical environments shows just how much the environment impacted early human groups.   Early humans were just as responsible for impacting their environment as their environment was responsible for shaping their habitat ranges, food sources, and social customs.



1Ponting, 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. 18-67.

2Williams, Michael, "Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis" (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2003) pp. 3-36.

3 Megafauna Extinction. January 8, 1999. Copyright 2006 NPR.  Accessed 2/2/06.

4Aboriginal Climate Change. March 17, 2002. Copyright 2006 NPR. Accessed 2/2/06.

5Bailey, R.C., Head, G., Jenike, M., Owen, B., Rechtman, R., and E. Zechenter. Hunting and Gathering in Tropical Rain Forest: Is It Possible? American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 91, No. 1. (Mar., 1989), pp. 59-82.







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