Early Humans and the Environment: How did they Impact Each Other?

Humans have been present on this Earth for nearly 3.5 million years when “Homo erectus” first evolved with an upright posture enabling the use of hands (Ponting). “Homo erectus” evolved into “Homo sapiens” one hundred thousand years ago and both lineages lived in small, mobile groups. For nearly two million years, their way of life was based around hunting and gathering food until ten to twelve thousand years ago when agriculture evolved. Early humans depended upon their knowledge of crops and seasons in order for survival. Eventually, as brain size increased and more humans adapted to different environments, advances were made in human technology. Humans began to work with and occasionally against their environment to create a stable way to acquire food as well as a more stable lifestyle. On the other hand, the environment, the climate in particular, definitely dictated the movement and survival methods of early humans.

The seasonal changes, climate, and other atmospheric conditions created many challenges for early humans. Modern examples that demonstrate what life might have been like thousands of years ago show that seasons determine where humans can survive. For example, the Bushmen of Southwest Africa live in a consistent climate. They move five or six times a year, but never travel more then ten to twelve miles. On the other hand, the Gidjingali Aborigines in northern Australia eat water lilies from full swamps during the wet season, but move to another area during dry season to hunt yam and geese. The Netsilik Inuit living in Canada use their environmental surroundings for all the necessities of life. Their houses are made from snow and ice while their clothing, kayaks, sledges, and tents are made from animal skins. Their tools and weapons are made from bones and in the winter are used for seal hunting. In the summer the Inuit hunt caribou and fish for survival (Ponting). While hunting did cause a strain on some ecosystems, as Clive Ponting states in his book, A Green History of the World: the Enviornment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations, “all gathering and hunting groups seem to have tried to control their numbers so as not to overtax the resources of their ecosystem (p 23)”.

Even though early humans attempted to not be burdens of their ecosystem, Ponting does point out that “the most dramatic impact that gathering and hunting groups had on their environment though was through hunting animals (p 33).” Most animals were defenseless against this new predation and overhunting was widespread problem especially since many groups of hunters tended to concentrate on one specific species. In some areas with a lack of plant variety, early humans began to kill large herds of bison and other large animals in very crude and wasteful ways such as luring them off cliffs or into canyons. “The changing environment put the greatest strain on these large animals, but hunting by humans would have had a devastating impact on a population already in decline and my have tipped the balance between extinction and survival (p 34-5).”

The changing climate played a crucial role in where humans actually resided. For example, it was only twelve thousand years ago when the last, long glacial period ended that humans attempted to live in Europe and were able to adapt to the harsh ecosystem. At that time Scandinavia, North Germany, Poland, the north-west Soviet Union, and the majority of Britain were covered in ice. Due to the low levels of plant life and vegetation, humans depended on large animal herds for existence as well as new tools and technology. The permanent settlement of Europe was a turning point for human existence because for the first time they were able to live and thrive in extremely severe climatic conditions (Ponting). The settlement of the Americas was also relatively late because the humans had to cross the difficult Siberian climate as well as the Bering Strait. On the contrary, early humans began to settle in the Australia fifty thousand years ago where food was readily available and the climate was very stable (Ponting).

The establishment of humans in Australia is currently causing some controversy pertaining to how humans could have possibly affected the environment. In Christopher Joyce’s NPR News report in Washington DC, he makes the point that around fifty thousand years ago, there was a mass extinction of eighty-five percent of the species that weighed more then twenty pounds. Daniel Grossman reported the same information, but he focused on University of Colorado Professor Gifford Miller’s hypothesis that when humans settled in Australia, they drastically altered the climate and environment causing the extinction of megafauna. Both reports claim that while humans had no problem hunting animals, there were too few humans to hunt the megafauna to such an extent and there was no drastic climate change at the time. There was however some disruption of the ecosystem that must have altered plant life and vegetation. Miller and other archeologists and geologists believe that humans began burning different areas to improve hunting techniques as well as allow new, preferred vegetation to grow. While the burning may have been beneficial to early humans, it deeply affected the animals as well as the climate of Australia. The animals that fed on the destroyed plants, reportedly the larger fauna, died out. The impact on the climate would have been drastic because water that falls to the ground is recycled back into the atmosphere via transpiration of leaves. However if the leaves were destroyed then the environment would be extremely arid. Miller’s research has shown that human habitation, the extinction of megafauna, an increase in fires, and a decrease in rainfall all occurred approximately fifty thousand years ago.

Climatic changes definitely played a role in the civilization of early humans. At the end of the last glaciation period when temperatures were relatively stable, scientists theorize that humans adopted agriculture. The better climate meant more resources and vegetation available for humans; therefore, the small mobile groups could begin to reside in one area. Agriculture was a turning point in early human life because humans began to alter their surroundings for survival (Ponting). The relationship between early humans and their environment is extremely complex. On one hand, the human race survived and prospered despite the climatic difficulties. On the other hand, the blossoming of early humans directly caused the extinction or near-extinction of many species as well as possibly affecting the atmosphere and climate.

Literature Cited
Grossman, Daniel. “Extinction of Large Animals in Australia” News Report. NPR News.
Joyce, Christopher. “Australian Anthropogenic Climate Change” News Report. NPR
Ponting, Clive. A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of
Great Civilizations. St. Martin's Press, New York, 1991. (pp 18-65).