Early Humans' Evolution with Their Environment

Bryn Lindblad

Recent concern about humans’ destructive impact on the environment scorns man’s exploitative attitude towards the Earth. However, people inaccurately asses this attitude as a recent prevalence, when in fact history shows that it has always been in man’s Darwinian nature to alter his environment to best ensure his survival. While it is true that the scope to which humans now alter their environments is greater than ever before, no change in their fundamental attitude towards the Earth has caused this increased impact. The degree to which humans have impacted their environment has increased over time relative to their physical and mental evolution. Humans are constantly evolving to best suit their changing environment. Not only did humans develop the ability to walk upright, but also to use language to communicate, to employ technology to solve problems that they encounter, and to think abstractly. These characteristics set humans apart from other animals (1).

Without humans present, ecosystems usually remain in equilibrium so that nearly all life forms prevail. Biotic and abiotic components and processes are in balance so that the ecosystem as a whole is very robust. Feedback and response mechanisms can alter ecosystems over time, but without human interference this change is typically very gradual such that the health of the ecosystem remains stable. I have already pointed out, though, that humans are different from other creatures.

Human intelligence and self-awareness makes them more capable of altering their environment than other forms of life. Humans’ enhanced intelligence makes them more adept at applying their knowledge in the practical development of technologies. To increase their likelihood of survival, when humans encounter unfavorable environmental conditions they use their technology to alter the Earth to their advantage. The advancement of language greatly enables humans to share their ideas with other people. As humans honed their survival skills, the world’s human population grew. To address environmental constraints caused by increased populations, humans further refined their lifestyles by settling in civilizations and employing agriculture. They developed complex societal structures to govern specialized occupational roles.

The earliest humans lived in relatively small tribes and provided food for themselves by gathering plants for the most part, but a minor part of their diet also came from animals that they hunted. They lived nomadic lifestyles, leaving behind areas which they had overgrazed so that by the time they returned it would be replenished with food for their nourishment. It is likely that these early humans had no consideration for sustainability and merely had a routine of abandoning depleted areas in pursuit of those that were more plentiful. The extent of their knowledge may have been in understanding what time of the year each type of plant would be available for food and where (2).

Plant scarcity or animal abundance probably encouraged humans to next develop better weapons for hunting. Meat became a more substantial portion of these early humans’ diet. It is not perfectly clear from archaeological evidence when these developments took place, but it is possible that the use of fire to cook meat may have made hunting a more appetizing option for subsistence. These early humans probably also used fire to burn regions of plants so that animals would flee out of the blazing area and be easier to hunt. This burning may have killed off some plants, which made it easier for other plants to grow. People discovered that by managing the ecology through burning, they were able to alter vegetation patterns in a way that turned out to be favorable to their dietary preferences.

Perhaps the idea of domesticating the environment gained popularity from this burning effect, or maybe the idea of plant cultivation accidentally blossomed from a common seed disposal place. It is also possible that a year of harsh climatic conditions could have decreased plant yields and encouraged humans to insure themselves against this possibility by cultivating plants. It seems more likely, though, that population growth had already started to occur and the previously-common traveling way of life could no longer provide enough food for everybody. When people learned that they could manipulate the land and water supply in order to control and enhance plant growth, agriculture was born. This caused an increase in food production which in turn allowed more people to be fed. This “ratchet effect” created an even greater population pressure to develop even more effective ways of food procurement (3). As agriculture became common practice, communities became more sedentary and formed settled societies.

The grand scale of food production made it more practical for people to work together to produce a general supply of food for the community rather than a personal supply for only their family. This system required a governance structure to collect and distribute food. The redistribution of food, the wealth of those days, promoted the stratification of society. Some people were designated to specialize in trades other than food production. With this spare labor force, different civilizations focused on developing different components of their society. For example, the Sumerians developed a standard weighing system to facilitate trade, the Mayans developed a concrete-like substance used for construction, the Indians improved their textile industry, and the Chinese experimented with different uses for gunpowder (4). Religious societies also emerged with the settlement of civilizations, often promising healthy crops and the sure survival of a community if the people worshiped the right gods in the right way.

As civilizations became more densely populated, people were forced to adapt and exploit previously-ignored food sources. This shift in food collecting strategies placed greater selection pressure on some plant and animal species which were unaccustomed to being preyed on by humans. In this way humans further altered the composition of many ecosystems.

I hope that this brief summary of early man’s evolutionary way of dealing with the environment sufficiently shows that throughout history humans have always had exploitative attitudes towards the Earth. Man, like other animals, has always been and is still seeking to ensure his survival on this planet. Man, unlike other animals, has a grand capacity to alter his environment to suit his survival needs. Equipped with great intelligence and the ability to be self-aware, humans have historically been able to figure out ways to avoid drastic harm. These human qualities may also make it possible for man to recognize the destructive effects of a currently-increasing population density and widespread environmentally-imposing technologies. It is precisely man’s innate will to survive that someday soon will make him realize that he must once again refine his ways to be able to successfully adapt to the depleted environment that he has created.

  • 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.
  • Ponting, 1991.
  • Ponting, 1991.
  • Teresi, Dick, "Lost Discoveries: The ancient roots of modern science", Simon and Schuster, 2002, ISBN 0-684-83718-8, pp. 325-367.

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last updated 2/12/07