Dispelling the Myth about Early Humans

Jackie Kahn



When contemplating the original relationship between man and nature, an idyllic notion of the environmentally aware native person coexisting peacefully with the world has pervaded the mind of the general public for centuries. Original man has been thought to have led a short life littered with the hardships of the constant struggle for survival. Only recently have these stereotypes come under assault. In an attempt to more fully scrutinize this seemingly doomed rapport between man and nature, several historians have reexamined the connection humans first established with the world around them, looking at everything from population size to the technologies they employed. In developing a new understanding of human’s coexistence with nature, a better picture can be painted of the road we have taken to the environmental destruction of today and perhaps will be able to raise ideas about possible solutions for the future.  

            Before delving into the actual nature of the relationship between early man and the environment, it is important to understand how early man actually functioned on a daily basis. As Clive Ponting points out in “A Green History of the World”, many people view the hunting and gathering lifestyle the same way Thomas Hobbes did, as “nasty, brutish, and short (Ponting, 19).” While this lifestyle was by no means as easy as survival today, historians may have been over exaggerating the true extent of early human’s hardships for the simple reason that they have been using current, marginalized hunting and gathering tribes as examples of early human groups. What they have failed to recognize, and what Ponting points out with several poignant cases, is the “relatively easy way in which sufficient food could be extracted from what would have been much more productive ecosystems than those now occupied by such groups (Ponting, 19).” These early groups, living nearly 30,000 years ago, would have lived in small populations spread thinly throughout the world, in areas that produced more than enough food to sustain their populace. Gathering would have been as easy as walking a few hundred yards to dig up one of the plentiful plants needed for a meal or scraping the berries off one the hundreds of trees surrounding the temporary habitation. Hunting would have been a bit more time consuming, but considering the fact that it was done only once every few weeks and only during certain seasons, the actual time spent is relatively minimal. This relative simplicity in the actual work for survival would have left plenty of time for leisure activities, a concept not typically attached to early human populations. Once again, Ponting points out that these leisure activities, usually centering on religious ceremonies, were extremely prevalent and can still be seen in these groups today, using the Inuit as an example (Ponting, 22). In short, the common belief that early humans were in a constant struggle to survive is a myth. The reality is that they frequently found themselves with an abundance of food with plenty of time to pursue other leisure activities.

The concept of early hunting and gathering tribes has often been explained as sustainable in that it did very little to compromise the ability of the environment to produce for future generations. While this may be true in some cases, Ponting argues that this sustainability may have been self regulated. The aforementioned simplicity that these hunting and gathering tribes led worked under very specific conditions, namely a small population size, for several reasons. A large population could never have been maintained 30,000 years ago for purely logistical reasons. Being hunters and gathers, tribes had to be relatively small for easy mobility. Only about 30 people could be expected to go and track a wooly mammoth. A larger group would have been ineffective and harder to mobilize. Furthermore, it seems that the early humans realized the limitations of their environment. In order for a population to survive with any sort of ease, size had to be maintained. If no form of birth control was instituted then populations would have exceeded the limits of the environment, requiring new forms of obtaining food. Ponting cites several examples of self regulation in terms of population size, including infanticide, protracted weaning, and abandonment of the old and infirmed (Ponting, 23). Therefore, it can be determined that population never truly began to increase until these constraints of the environment could be lifted. The ultimate way to do this was through technology and eventually the development of a modern form of agriculture.

The technologies employed by early humans were basic - simple stone tools, spears, fire, and possibly the use of wolves and dogs. These last two technologies illustrate very early instances of human’s control over nature. Fire, although highly debated over when it was first put into purposeful use by humans, served several purposes. Aside from the obvious uses in cooking, warmth, and protection, fire was also used in hunting and early forms of agriculture. Although agriculture as we know it did not truly exist, early humans did cultivate crop on a smaller scale, removing plants that competed with their food and more importantly, burning down small tracts of land so that minerals will replenish more quickly for their desired plants. This is in obvious discord with the generally accepted stereotype of early peoples living harmoniously with their environment. The reality was instead a people who did not violently destroy their surroundings due to their small numbers, but still a group of humans, who like today, altered the land to make their lives easier.

There is a similar argument to be made for the domestication of dogs. Once again, the true nature of how the first wolves became domesticated has come under serious dispute, but the fact that humans used dog breeding in order to obtain the most obedient dogs cannot be argued. Based on several tests (Pennisi, 1542), tameability and trainability are two characteristics that are now innate in dogs. Some of these researchers suggest that it was precisely these two characteristics that made the initial domestication possible. While it is still widely argued whether humans took in dogs for warmth and aide in hunting or if wolves came to human camps in search of food scrapes – the more likely of the two scenarios – regardless, the two traits that allowed for dogs to peacefully coexist with humans were precisely the two characteristics that were sought out in breeding. The two examples of fire and dog breeding as human control over nature for personal gain demonstrate that although the early humans did not overpopulate the earth and destroy it by exploitation, they were by no means the innocent bystanders in the Garden of Eden either.

In short, early humans, although not living the short and brutish life that we once thought, did not live in a completely sustainable way either. Despite the regulation of population size, as soon as more efficient means of finding food were discovered, population explosions occurred almost immediately. Early humans did not just sit back and enjoy their simple and leisurely lifestyle. They like humans all throughout history, invented technologies to make life even easier and work less time consuming. The advent of modern forms of agriculture were inevitable for the simple fact that humans could never have been satisfied with the simple pleasures of hunting and gathering in a plentiful environment.