Early Humans and Their Environment

Ben Ewen-Campen


Human Nature and the Environment

Prof. Everbach


In her essay ³Modern Human Origins,² (1993), Mary Stiner writes that there is a tendency to think of early human evolution as a calculated, forward progression ³from incompetence to faculty.² (74).  That is, as early humans gathered brain-power, conscious departures from simplistic forms of subsistence towards more complex and thoughtful ones became possible.  Seen this way, developments such as the domestication of animals, the advent of agriculture, and the acceptance of energy-saving tools were consciously enacted as soon as humans became intelligent enough to invent them.  Stiner describes this outlook as a ³diffusion of genius² theory (75).  A given technology is created by a gifted individual or society, and the consequences of this creation are so clearly beneficial to its inventors that it quickly spreads and replaces a previously existing, less efficient technology.   

With this view, the creation of agriculture would seem a natural progression from hunting and gathering.  Because agriculture yields much more food per acre than hunting and gathering does, as theglobal population increased, more food was required to feed the growing population.  Agriculture also seemingly allows for more control over the yield and quality of the produce, and provides a more dependable food source than relying on nature¹s whim.  In addition, groups that began to farm would have been allowed to settle in one place rather than constantly following herds and seasonal plants.

This view, however, does not seem to necessarily have been the case.  In A Green History of the World, Clive Ponting writes that the commonly held perception that hunting and gathering is a brutal and savage life is largely incorrect.  Although detailed evidence is hard to establish regarding the quality of life for pre-agricultural  hunter/gatherers, Ponting has studied the living conditions of existing modern-day scavenging groups.  He reports that the Bushmen of South-West Africa lead incredibly leisurely lives by our standards.  Their main food-source is the extraordinarily nutritious and plentiful Mongongo nut, which is present year-round.  It takes about two and one-half days out of every week for the Bushmen to obtain enough food to last that week.  Women normally gather for 1-2 hours a day and spend the rest of their time in leisure activities, and men will often hunt for one week and then rest for two to three weeks.  There are no signs of deficiency diseases, and the calorie-intake is above average

Ponting points out that humans had lived by hunting/gathering for nearly two millions years until 10,000 years ago, when agriculture suddenly sprung up.  While the lifestyle of the Bushmen may not be generalizable to all hunting and gathering groups, it is certainly not the case that the benefits offered by agriculture so clearly outweighed those of hunting and gathering to the point that hunter/gatherers would have dropped their lifestyles at the first opportunity to farm.  In fact, agriculture requires much more than 2 1/2 hours of work each day.  Were the benefits of agriculture obvious enough to hunter/gatherer groups 10,000 years ago that they would have consciously decided, with no natural pressures besides a growing population, to give up the way of life that had lasted them for two million years?

Stiner, Ponting and many others claim that the transition to agriculture was actually quite gradual and undirected.  Stiner describes his own view as ³selection upon variation in the context of widespread environmental forces.²  Instead of each invention punctuating the equilibrium and drastically pushing the entire lifestyle forward, Stiner believes that small, incremental, and perhaps seemingly insignificant changes gradually created what now appears to have been a monumental revolution. 

For example, one theory explained to me by a fellow student, Scott Long (taken from Guns, Germs, and Steel, I believe), assumes that the members of a hunter/gatherer group would have generally defecated in one location.  Because these people would have eaten the plants which possessed traits making them available to humans (such as appropriate size, location, and taste), these seeds would have been unconsciously selected for these traits, centralized to one location, and unknowingly fertilized.  Thus, all the basic principles of agriculture could have revealed themselves inadvertently. 

There is also evidence that hunter/gatherers have long used fire as a way to thin forests and remove unwanted plants.  Doing this would result in an area in which only the desired plants remain, and are localized.  From here, it is not difficult to imagine a long-term continuation of this burning technique which could produce a localized area of self-sowing edible plants (this idea was raised in a class discussion).

Admittedly, the idea that agriculture came about ³by accident,² with no conscious intervention by humans does not sound quite right.  As early Homo sapiens had the same brain size that we do (Stiner), it seems quite possible that at some point an early human may have consciously registered some pattern of plant seeding and purposefully attempted to cultivate the seeds.  Certainly, at some point along human evolution we became capable (to a certain degree, anyway) of envisioning things that did not already exist, or at least of harnessing the knowledge gained from observation and experimentation to create new things. 

It seems to me that one of the major reasons why it is so difficult to accept that such an enormous technology such as agriculture could have come into existence without humans willing it is that agriculture just seems to make too much ³sense² to have sprung up on its own volition.  As Stephen J. Gould writes in his collection of essays Ever Since Darwin, some of the greatest challenges to the theory of evolution are ³organs of extreme perfection²: the mechanisms in nature that are so complex and incredible that the idea that they evolved by natural selection seems nearly impossible.  Gould quotes Darwin as having written of the human eye:


To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection seems, I confess, absurd in the highest degree.

                                                (Ever Since Darwin, 1977)



            Yet, the eyeball did, of course, develop through an incredibly long period of natural selection.  Does this make it any less incredible or take anything away from its complexity?   Gould argues, and I couldn¹t agree more, that the natural, unconscious process of the development of these mechanisms does not detract from their magnificence but rather intensifies it: ³Shall we appreciate less the beauty of nature because it is unplanned?² (27).  Like the evolution of the human eye, Stiner argues that many of the fundamental technologies of humankind have arisen not through isolated acts of genius and insight, but rather as natural selection acting on a wide range of behaviors, slowly selecting for those practices which take most full advantage of the environment. 

            For example, the domestication of animals (which, according to Ponting, preceded the domestication of crops) is often thought of as a careful process by which humans tirelessly selected for smaller and more docile animals, only breeding those that fit the mold of their ideal animal.  However, several new studies focusing on the domestication of dogs from wolves suggest that this process was in fact quite unintentional.  Dr. Ray Coppinger believes that it is highly unlikely that humans would have consciously selected for sufficiently tame wolves.  Coppinger says that it is much more likely that those wolves which were naturally tame enough to approach humans would have been able to eat the food-scraps from those humans, thereby gaining a survival advantage.  The benefits of having dogs would have been immense: for protection, warning, warmth, perhaps hunting, and a food source if necessary.  Because of this, those people with dogs may have had better survival rates of those that did not ­ that is, humans with dogs were selected for, not simply that humans selectively domesticated dogs. 

Another study done by Dmitry K. Belyaev provides more support for the idea that the domestication of dogs was not necessarily planned.  Belyaev and partners worked to domesticate silver foxes over the course of 40 years, and produced 100 tame foxes from an original 45,000 wild animals.  This would mean that if humans had totally consciously domesticated dogs from dogs, chiseling away at undesired traits, it would have taken thousands of wild animals, the majority of which would have been too difficult to work with, over an incredibly long period of time, using organized breeding techniques (not to mention an understanding of what they were attempting to do).  In addition, it is difficult to imagine humans consciously attempting to domesticate wild wolves as their first choice for companionship. 

            With a model like this, it becomes possible to imagine ways in which many seemingly incredible technological advancements could have in fact been made gradually, not necessarily intentionally.  This is not to say that intuition and intelligence were not necessarily involved in any aspect human evolution, as this is clearly not the case either.  It is most likely somewhere in between; nature selecting and humans occasionally making small, informed steps towards their current state, not necessarily fully aware of the effects of their actions, slowly building towards the monumental changes they have made on our environment.