Early Humans' Use of Resources


When reading about early humans, one is immediately struck by two conflicting notions: that early humans were, on the one hand, much like us: capable of art, conscious thought, and language, and on the other hand, that they weren't that unique: many of the techniques that they used to survive resembled techniques employed by other animals. Questions of human nature arise when thinking about such things: are we merely well-disguised animals, who think that we're more different than we are, or are we innately different and separate, unique and special? And what does this say about how we relate to the environment?

What we share with animals
There was a time before anything resembling humans existed. Out of that, somehow, we evolved. At first, we can't have been that different. "Hominids evolved as members of animal communities…. The farther back in time one searches, the more hominid-associated faunas tend to be intermingled with bones collected and/or modified by nonhuman predators" (Stiner, 61). In the early years, humans occupied the same predatory niche as the other animals at the top of the food chain. They had similar dietary needs, requiring lots of protein and fat. They were not, however, very good at obtaining nutrition. "Studies of top carnivores in ecosystems show that they only make a kill about once in every ten attempts. Humans, even with some help from technology, are much less well adapted to this role than lions or tigers and are likely to achieve even lower rates of success." (Ponting, 21). Consequently, "most of the meat in their diet is likely to have some from scavenging animals killed by other predators" (Ponting, 22). This behavior resembles that of primates, who tended to be "particle feeders", grazing and scavenging what they could. They did not transport large amounts of food, and had no sophisticated methods for processing that food. They tended to eat less meat, and did not spend a lot of time getting it.
This comparison to primates is not always an accurate one. Over time, humans became more sophisticated hunters, bearing a closer resemblance to carnivores. "Predation by humans and carnivores is about more than the act of killing…. Highly developed strategies [were utilized by both:]… cooperative hunting, cooperative infant care, deliberate transport of significant quantities of food, and extensive and highly effective bone and meat processing capabilities" (Stiner, 60). The strategies adopted by humans cannot simply be explained as having been picked up from observing the behavior of carnivores. Other animals did not adopt the strategies of carnivores and evolve to resemble them. There must have been something in us that predisposed us toward such behaviors. "The high rates of transport and the volumes of food moved by humans and some carnivores underline the existence of convergent structural features of their foraging adaptations…. They reflect deeply entrenched behavioral tendencies" (Stiner, 60. Emphasis added). In other words, we have a lot in common with large, predatory, canine-gnashing animals. In fact, those very shared characteristics contributed to our ability to spread across such a large portion of the globe. "The prodigious geographic distribution of humans, a once tropical lineage, is extraordinary among primates, but is not unusual for large predators" (Stiner, 55). We were not the only ones capable of adapting to new environments, spreading across a wide variety of terrains. To a lesser degree, carnivores are also able to move freely over a wide range of terrains.
The line between human and non-human nature may be fuzzier than we would like to think. While many of our capabilities are more highly developed in hominids than in other creatures, they are nonetheless not exclusively human. "Whereas only people make elaborate stone tools, many animals collect and modify bones" (Stiner, 61). From this, we may conclude that the mere fact that hominids made things does not necessarily indicate the presence of culture. Homo erectus, for example, had "'a 15-minute culture'. Essentially, they made tools for immediate use and then discarded them. It was a case of mechanically producing something very practical, rather than living within a culture in which every activity becomes invested with elaborate rituals and beliefs" (McCrone, 34).

Uniquely human characteristics
It is hard to say for sure which characteristics of early humans were, in fact, uniquely theirs. However, there are some that seem to be good candidates, distinguishing us from animals to some degree.
Perhaps many of our techniques were developed by imitating what other animals instinctively did. Hominids were versatile, spreading into all sorts of unfamiliar environments and finding ways to survive. However, most adaptations were cultural, not genetic. Stiner described humans as "an intensely social and inventive species" (70). So maybe what enabled humans to become so wildly successful was their capacity for culture, their ability to develop technology, to learn things that were not genetically pre-programmed and pass them along.
Humans certainly did develop many characteristics that seem to be less directly linked to survival. "Most of the time they live in small groups… and come together in larger groups for ceremonial purposes… when food supplies allow a larger population to gather in one place" (Ponting, 20). This seems unusual: I can't think of very many animals who, when given extra food, choose to gather together in large groups ceremonially. Most animals seem to either eat the extra food themselves, or have more children and allow the population to expand until there is no food surplus. Humans seem to be one of the only creatures that view a food surplus as a chance to devote time to other activities. This is true of contemporary hunter-gatherer groups, as well: "spare time was not spent in increasing output but was devoted to ceremonies, leisure and warfare" (Ponting, 21).
For this to be possible, humans adopted another unusual strategy: population control. "All gathering and hunting groups… seem to have tried to control their numbers so as not to overtax the resources of their ecosystem" (Ponting, 23). This was accomplished through infanticide, protracted weaning, and abandonment of older members of the group. From this, it can be seen that humans, unlike many other animals, had a goal outside of increasing their population as much as possible: they took into consideration the comfort levels of the members of the population. Better to have fewer members, and time for ceremonies and leisure, than to have more members and lead a less enjoyable lifestyle.
This focus on comfort and convenience could perhaps be identified in other behavioral traits of early humans. While they were poor hunters at the beginning, they eventually improved until, as Stiner noted, the carcasses archaeologists found at more recent sites tended to belong to young, healthy creatures: very different from most predators, who kill the old and sickly. To understand why they did this is pure speculation. It seems logical, though, that the younger creatures tasted better, and provided more food per animal killed. Humans applied a similar strategy towards the way that they gathered non-meat food. "gathering and hunting groups alter the conditions in which wild 'crops' grow, intervening in order to benefit some favoured plants at the expense of others that they do not require." (Ponting, 33). This was accomplished through burning land and clearing forest, and eventually led to the development of farming practices. Ponting describes a basic distinguishing trait of humans to be the "adaptation of technological means to overcome difficulties" (24). Evidence of strategies developed to improve the effectiveness of hunting and gathering behavior support this assertion.

Really, it's hard to know exactly where to draw the line between what is "innately human" and what is not. Such a goal may be overly ambitious for the cursory treatment of the topic presented here. Perhaps this paper may prove helpful in making progress towards an answer. To sum up, the techniques employed by humans to obtain food bear more than a slight resemblance to animal techniques. This seems to indicate the presence of animal-like qualities in humans. It may, in fact, be these very qualities that allowed us to become so successful. On the other hand, those characteristics that distinguish us - population control, increasing efficiency through technological means, our need for leisure - also contributed to our effectiveness as a species. If it is true, as this paper seems to be arguing, that the motivation for human evolution was our love of convenience and leisure time, then it's difficult to see how present-day humans may ever be encouraged to alter their behavior without the promise of increased comfort.

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last updated 2/20/03