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.
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).