The Reciprocality of Early Humans' Relationship with the Environment


Since their beginning, human survival had depended on their interaction with the environment. Humans are different from other animals in that we will go to any means necessary to alter our environment to ensure survival. Although each culture has a unique and distinct ecological relationship. The relationship has always been reciprocal and complementary, it consisted of a general pattern of human interference and it's corresponding environmental modification. The relationship between humans and the environment changes as both co-evolve and humans are forever adapting to an ever-changing environment.
Although there remains a romantic view that a long, long time ago humans actions did not impact the environment, this is erroneous and misleading. The reason why human activities in the environment were not very detrimental is because they occurred on a small scale. In A Green History of The World, Ponting writes "About 10,000 years ago, before the evolution of agriculture, the population of the world was four million (Ponting 37)." Today, we number six million, and as a result our effect on the environment has increased exponentially. In addition to their low numbers, another reason for which early humans did not overwhelm their environment is because their lifestyle was low-impact.
This low-impact early human lifestyle went hand in hand with limited brainpower, knowledge, and tools, and therefore no way of controlling their environment. At this point in human history, the environment had a greater impact on early human lives than their impact on it.
The environment dictated the diet on which early humans depended. Their diet consisted of what could be found in the immediate vicinity, and also the seasonal changes in food availability. "In order to obtain necessary subsistence, gathering and hunting groups depended on knowledge of their local areas and in particular an awareness of what types of food will be available at different places and at different times of year (Ponting 22)."
As humans got smarter, they wanted more control over their environment, to make sure that they could always get food, and get food that they liked. This is one of the reasons agriculture came into being. Another primitive farming technique was burning the grass and vegetation in certain areas, which was done "in order to benefit some favored plants at the expense of others that they do not require "(Ponting 33). "In New Guinea, from about 30,000 years ago, not long after it was first settled, there is widespread evidence of forest clearance by felling, ring barking, and the use of fire. This opening up of the forest cover was to encourage food plants…to grow" (Ponting33). This type of "farming" achieved the same end result as our modern farming, "more edible food" from the same amount of land.
The use of fire in food procurement gained a new dimension when humans started hunting. In order to make hunting easier, people would burn down whole forests, to make it easier to find their prey. This is just one of the most extreme forms of human intervention with the natural world.
In such a way humans exploited their environment for their own convenience. It seems that each group had its own level of awareness, and short term vs. long term. As humans evolved, their brains got larger, and they became capable of abstract thinking. If I remember correctly, overhearing in class that Erlich once said, "culture is the non genetic part of information passed down through generations." So the lifestyle of early humans was not based purely on their interaction with the environment, but also on the patterns and methods passed down from their ancestors.
Cultural customs and traditions had an environmental impact. Some examples are accepted killing served as a form of population control, the specialization in certain animals for human food overhunting and extinction, a religion which promoted deforestation in the case of Easter Island, or the sustainable rotational hunting of the Cree. These different examples will examine how each culture either promoted or thwarted ecological sustainability.
"All gathering and hunting groups, both contemporary and historical, seem to have tried to control their numbers so as not to overtax the resources of their ecosystems (Ponting 23)." The act of killing the elderly or deformed babies was a cultural practice, but the consequence was a smaller population of individuals who could not support themselves, and were a burden on the others in their group. The murder of twins was just a way to keep the population down, and not overtax the environment.
Although many hunting and gathering groups were not concerned with preserving resources for the future, "there is…evidence that some of these groups did try to conserve resources in the interest of maintaining subsistence over a long period." For example, "some groups had sacred areas where hunting was forbidden" and "the Cree in Canada used a form of rotational hunting. (Ponting 32)." I can speculate that the results of this type of resource use was that the earth did not feel the impact of human presence. The natural balance of large edible mammals to smaller ones was probably not disturbed which helped promote biodiversity. Then in sharp contrast to such instances, there is the case of Easter Island, where within a few thousand years of their arrival, human actions had altered the environment so much as to make the support of plant and wildlife virtually impossible. I am very interested in the different circumstances which accounted for these differences. However, Ponting does not discuss the matter in his book.
The strongest example of this relationship is the case of Easter Island. "When the first people found Easter Island, they discovered a world with few resources…the island had only a few species of plants and animals…the waters around the island contained very few fish (Ponting 3)." Despite the unfavorable circumstances, people settled the island. The climate did not allow them to grow their native plants, except for the sweet potato. Since there were no mammals on the island, the only animals which were domesticated for consumption were chickens. Ponting continues to write that "The only advantage of this monotonous diet [of sweet potatoes and chicken] was that the cultivation of sweet potatoes was not very demanding…Therefore there was plenty of free time which the clan chiefs were able to direct into ceremonial activities. The result was the creation of the most advanced of all the Polynesian societies."
Environmental factors made it possible for a society to be built because food procurement was easily. One result of this advanced society was that it's culture (and religion?) relied on the heavy use of trees, which were a scarce renewable resource. The inhabitant's culture did not allow for re-growth of the trees, with tragic consequences. There seems to have been an illogical, self destructive mindset which allowed this to happen.
The existence of different types of hunter gatherer societies poses many questions about human nature and the future of humans. What can explain the difference behind the varying levels of ecological impact among different cultures? Why do we keep making the same mistakes our ancestors made, namely the one of exploiting a resource past it's threshold of renewability, until we move on to a less efficient method of survival? The example of Cree foresight gives me hope that the modern industrialized nations of the world will abandon the current lifestyle which emphasizes short term human convenience over a lifestyle which is sustainable over the long term.

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last updated 1/29/03