Prehistoric Tendencies

Nicholas Buttino

Few dispute that for the 100,000 years that Homo sapiens have existed, they have ever more rapidly developed technologies to manipulate our environment (Ponting, 19).  As Paul Ehrlich, author of Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect, explains, genetic programming accounts for much of our ability and desire to create these technologies, though genes cannot explain what technologies we create or how we use them.  Technological expansion allowed for the geographical expansion that not only gave the actions of humans global significance but also immensely complicated the impact of our actions.  The repercussions of our prehistoric disposition to invent and use technologies, often technologies designed to alter our environment, extends to the present.  One can hear the echoes of past failures reverberating in the current environmental crisis. Patterns in early human development indicate how we have used our abilities and environment in the past.  These patterns incorporate themselves into cultures, emerging in the present and shaping how we function in and impact our environment (

Our early tendencies emerged long before their concentrations in civilization. As Clive Ponting clarifies, for all but perhaps ten thousand in two million years of human development, humans existed in primitive gathering and hunting stages that lacked the organization to accomplish large-scale environmental manipulation (Ponting, 18). The harnessing of fire, tool production, domestication of animals, and grammatical language formed the four main types of technology (if technology is defined as any development that assists environmental manipulation) most important to early humans. While precise invention dates for such technologies cannot be pinpointed, archeologists have found evidence of fire dating to 1.6 million years ago (McCrone, 30), wooden spears dating to 400,000 years ago (Ponting, 24), dog domestication to 135,000 years ago (Wade), and grammatical language to 40,000 years ago (McCrone, 30).  Armed with these technologies, early humans showed a penchant for both ingenuity and destruction that supports current ideas of both scientific optimism (the idea that science and technological innovation will prevent or undue any environmental problem that will occur) and fears of environmental collapse.

Archeological evidence from Australia demonstrates that primitive humans had the capability to alter their environment and even change their climate. Fossil analysis indicates that mega-fauna disappeared from Australia 50,000 years ago, a period that corresponds both with a mild climate and human arrival.  While scientists have found little evidence of butchering of these large animals, they have found evidence of an increase in fire scale and frequency that corresponds to human expansion.  Daniel Grossman posits that human arrival and the additional anthropogenic fires destroyed forest habitats for mega-fauna, altering rainfall and climate patterns, and indirectly contributing to the mass extinction of Australia’s mega-fauna.  His evidence, taken from digging around Wolf Creek crater confirms that with even the most basic technologies and little to no civilized structure, humans can cause massive destruction their environments (

Early civilization and the development of culture increased the pattern of environmental manipulation and destruction that often accompanies it. Easter Island provides a microcosm for viewing the consequences of cultural practices and the use of simple technologies.  Located in the Pacific Ocean, 2,000 miles from South America and measuring one hundred and fifty square miles, Easter Island once sustained 7,000 inhabitants, noted for building large stone heads (ahu).  Polynesian settlers arrived at Easter Island in the fifth century, and their civilization grew and flourished until the seventeenth century.  Living in a marginal climate feeding on chickens and sweet potatoes, the Easter Islanders formed clans and built ahu.  Construction of the ahu required stone for material and large trees for transportation.  Though originally prevalent, the trees grew slowly and did not recover from the rapid deforestation that occurred as a result of ahu construction.  Without the forests, erosion of the already marginal soil increased and boat construction could not occur, catalyzing the collapse of the once thriving and prevalent society.  Given the remoteness, small land area, and marginal productivity of island, one might consider the rise of any civilization on Easter Island remarkable. Nevertheless, the failure of a fragile ecosystem, which one would expect to fail first, indicates the capacities of humans, our technologies, and possible ramifications (Ponting, 1-7).

The Norse in Greenland replicated the pattern of societal failure on an island due to destructive cultural practices in a marginal and largely closed environment. They specifically show the consequences of destructive cultural norms because one may compare them to the native peoples of Greenland. Norse settlers from Iceland established a colony on southern Greenland in the tenth century, which lasted until the late fifteenth century.  They perished, first slaughtering their prized dairy cattle and elkhounds in a series of long winters and cool summers. Burial evidence suggests that to the last, they remained culturally and ethnically pure, refusing to interbreed with their neighboring native populations, which survived by hunting seals. Similar to the Polynesians in Easter Island, the cultural and religious practices of the Greenland Norse proved disastrous in a marginal environment.  Also like the Easter Islanders, cultural practices, in this case living isolated from the native peoples and maintaining ethnic and cultural purity, contributed to the Norse’s inability to cease destructive environmental practices. The propensity towards formations of culture and technology, while inherently part of our identity as a species, has irreparable consequences to both our environment and the development (Pringle).

From these three examples, humans have demonstrated both ability and a tendency to use technologies to manipulate their environment, sometimes with disastrous results. Our nature does not, however, necessitate a global environmental or societal failure.  Environmental failures most often occur in isolated and primitive societies with marginal agricultural potential.  The entire ecosystem, though a closed system, has recuperation and production capabilities that far exceed any individual example. One cannot scale the example microcosms to the entire planet.   Furthermore, modern technologies offer some solutions to many environmental problems, suggesting some support for scientific optimism. With such a large and complex ecosystem, patterns and properties emerge that cannot be reduced to individual components. For example, interactions within food webs complicate our understanding of the importance of the effect of biodiversity on ecosystem health (Loreau).  History shows us that humans, perhaps from genetic dispositions, have a continuing, and inevitable tendency to manipulate their environment.  The solution to environmental degradation, therefore, is not to cease environmental manipulation, but to practice wise environmental manipulation.  Cultural manifestations determine how we express this disposition, and ultimately will determine the future.

Literature Cited

Ehrlich, Paul. 2000. “Human Natures.” Radio Interview. NPR. Available:

Grossman, Robert. 2002. “Aboriginal Climate Change.” Radio Interview. NPR. Available:

Loreau, et al. 2001. “Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning: Current Knowledge and Future Challenges.” Science. 294: 804-808.

McCrone, John. 2000. “Fired Up.” New Scientist. Online Internet. Available: 20 May 2000.

Ponting, Clive. A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.

Pringle, Heater. 1997. “Death in Norse Greenland.” Science. 275: 924-926.

Wade, Nicholas. 2002. “From Wolf to Dog, Yes, but When?” The New York Times. 22. Nov. 2002.

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