To Kill or To Cooperate: Will Our Consumption Consume Us All?

Homo sapiens love to consume. Whether humans consume commodities as rare as fossil fuels or as common as a pair of socks, the objects of human consumption fall under a wide and varied range. In particular, humans love to consume food. Eating is such an integral a part of the nature of Homo sapiens that it would be difficult to find an argument against why biologists classify plants as producers and humans as consumers.

I believe that the human desire to consume began to play a larger role in human nature with the advent of the ancient technology of fire. Once Homo sapiens discovered how to control such a formidable force, they used it in the hunt. Fire allowed humans to drive all manner of prey out of hiding, go fishing in darkness, gain health benefits from cooked food, and even calm bees with smoke to make honey gathering easier (Williams 18).

This manipulation of animals through fire suggests that control of fire may have triggered the initial development of other technologies that affect wild fauna, like hunting weapons and animal domestication (Williams 19). Fire was key to unlocking the door to technologies that were developed for the purpose of sating the human need to consume, and these technologies had lasting effects on the environment by either harming or cooperating with native wildlife.

Image: Fire Used as a Cooking Tool fire used as cooking tool

The first technology that fire presaged was weapons. In the essay Early Humans’ Evolution with Their Environment, former classmate Bryn Lindblad suggests that as animal populations increased and fire was used more in cooking, humans were incentivized to develop more weapons for the hunt in order to raise their meat intake (Lindblad). This justifies the variety of weapons that Homo sapiens first invented, such as fire-sharpened wooden spears (Ponting 24, 29).

Fire itself was also directly used as a tool to increase human consumption alongside weapons. In the essay The Development of Fire: Catalyst for Cultural Development or Another Tool?, former classmate Ben Staplin mentions that human ancestors discovered that the destruction resulting from natural fires could be used to their advantage, as the fire damage provided clear paths to walk, less undergrowth to hide prey from view, and already-cooked prey ready to be consumed (Staplin). Once fire could be purposefully controlled, it was employed in large-scale animal kill sites (Ponting 24). This means that Homo sapiens had both the devastating power of fire as well as a multitude of hunting weapons to be used to satisfy the human desire to consume by exploiting the wild fauna of the environment. Herds of bison were forced over cliffs, for example, slaying hundreds when only a few deaths were warranted (Ponting 30, 33). Sea otters were continually hunted for more than a thousand years until they almost reached the point of extinction.

Numerous animal species actually did become fully extinct as a result of Homo sapiens’ greed (Ponting 34). Just a few hundred years after humans first came to Madagascar, for example, they utterly destroyed native populations of large flightless birds and pygmy hippopotamuses (Ponting 34). Thirty-nine different species of flightless birds that lived on Hawaii were also completely wiped out after humans had lived on the island for a mere one thousand years (Ponting 34). In this way, fire and the human desire to consume led to the development of weapons and killing techniques that wrought immense damage upon the fauna that made up the Homo sapiens’ environment.

Image: Fire-Sharpened Wooden Spear fire spear

Though fire led to the formation of weapons that encouraged the destruction of wildlife, fire also led to the development of domestication, a technology that fostered symbiotic relationships with the fauna. Domestication of canines began when hunter-gatherers gave food scraps left over from their campfires to scavenging wolves (Wade). Hunter-gatherers would also occasionally take in young wild animals as pets (Wade). The process of domestication satisfied the Homo sapiens’ need to consume in a more mutualistic and less environmentally harmful way than the development of weapons. For example, tame wolves could have helped with hunting, or could have been used as an emergency food supply (Wade). In the essay How Wolves Made Themselves Dogs, former classmate Kristen Traband suggests that humans may have enjoyed the protection wolves could give them from other humans or wildlife (Traband). Wolves could also have functioned as bed warmers (Wade). These ancient dogs ended up becoming such a useful asset to human consumption that the animals evolved the ability to understand Homo sapiens’ hand signals, allowing them to better cooperate with humans in the hunt (Wade). This symbiotic relationship had such a positive impact on both parties that it still continues in the modern day dog.

With this new technology of domestication, humans substantially widened the range of the objects of their consumption. In some indigenous African communities, for example, a symbiotic relationship between humans and a small bird known as the Greater Honeyguide allowed both to achieve the coveted prize of honey (Saha and Spottiswoode). Humans knew how to calm bees with smoke and climb tree trunks to access and break open the beehives, but lacked the knowledge to actually locate the beehives. Greater Honeyguides knew the locations of the hives, but were unable to break them open to access the delectable bee larvae inside. There is evidence to support that humans and Greater Honeyguides began to work together around 1.9 million years ago in order to harvest the honey (for the humans) and bee larvae (for the birds) from these hives (Saha and Spottiswoode). Much like wolves, Greater Honeyguides have even evolved the ability to communicate with Homo sapiens by understanding vocal cues that indicate when the humans are ready to hunt (Saha and Spottiswoode). This symbiotic relationship was so beneficial to both the people and the birds that it still persists today in the Yao culture in Mozambique (Saha and Spottiswoode). Current studies estimate that 10% of these peoples’ diet actually relies on this alliance with the Greater Honeyguides (Saha and Spottiswoode). As seen in the relationships between humans, wolves, and Greater Honeyguides, the human need to consume led to the development of a technology that significantly impacts the wildlife that comprises the humans’ environment, but in a mutualistic and eco-friendly way instead of a harmful one.

Image: A Member of the Yao Culture with a Greater Honeyguide greater honeyguide

The advent of controlled fire thus led to the development of technologies that both irreversibly damaged and permanently forged symbiotic relationships with the wildlife in the humans’ environment. The weapons and killing techniques used to sate Homo sapiens’ hunger destroyed native fauna and distorted both the ecosystems of the past and the present. Domestication constructed mutually beneficial relationships between people and many animals inherent in the environment, and many of these relationships still last into the modern day.

After examining the ways in which early Homo sapiens acted on their desire to consume, it is evident that the actions of modern people in regards to present-day consumption still have the power to greatly damage the environment. The meat industry in the United States, for example, produces a large amount of greenhouse gases and exacerbates pollution from farm runoff as it satisfies peoples’ craving for meat (Walsh). The fossil fuel industry also has numerous environmental ramifications, especially because 80% of the energy United States citizens have been consuming for the past 100 years has come from noxious petroleum, natural gas, and coal (Today in Energy).

Image: Energy Sources Consumed in the United States Over the Past 100 Years US energy

Currently, Homo sapiens are acting on their innate desire to consume in a way similar to that of the early humans who developed weapons that harmed and exploited the environment. Continuing on in this manner will have a dire impact on the environment, but humans still have the ability to use modern technology in a more positive way. By endorsing sustainable, cage-free, grass-fed ranching as well as renewable, alternate energy sources, humans can act on the need to consume by choosing to cooperate with nature rather than to harm it.

Works Cited

Lindblad, Bryn. “Early Humans’ Evolution with Their Environment.” Swarthmore College, 12 Feb. 2007. Web. 17 Sept. 2016.

Ponting, Clive. “Chapters 3 & 4.” A Green History of the World. New York: St. Martin’s, 1991. 18-67. Print.

Saha, Purbita, and Claire Spottiswoode. “Meet the Greater Honeyguide, the Bird that Understands Humans.” Audubon Magazine. National Audubon Society, 16 Dec. 2013. Web. 16 Sept. 2016. <>.

Staplin, Ben. “The Development of Fire: Catalyst for Cultural Development or Another Tool?” Swarthmore College, 12 Feb. 2008. Web. 17 Sept. 2016.

Traband, Kristen. “How Wolves Made Themselves Dogs.” Swarthmore College, 8 Feb. 2008. Web. 16 Sept. 2016.

“Today in Energy: Fossil Fuels Have Made Up at Least 80% of U.S. Fuel Mix Since 1900.” U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2 July 2015. Web. 16 Sept. 2016.

Wade, Nicholas. “From Wolf to Dog, Yes, But When?” New York Times. 22 Nov. 2002: n. pag. Print.

Walsh, Bryan. “The Triple Whopper Environmental Impact of Global Meat Production.” Time Magazine. Time Inc., 16 Dec. 2013. Web. 16 Sept. 2016. <>.

Williams, Michael. “Chapter 2: Fire and Foragers.” Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis, an Abridgement. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2006. 14-36. Print.

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Fire Used as a Cooking Tool:

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