Untraceable Past

Nicolas Blanco

It appears that humans are entering a stage in their collective lives in which we are beginning to see that we can quite easily alter our environments very drastically. Some are still divided about how they feel about this, feeling that things cannot possibly be as bad as the many doomsday-scenarios painted by both scientific and religious authorities. And there are others who are extremely worried about our collective affect on the environment, and fear that it may already be too late for humans, and the world will soon change sufficiently enough to make continued human survival on this planet very difficult. From both types of people, the question arises, "Was there ever a time when humans lived in a way that was more or less in harmony with the environment?"

A key element in this discussion is the use of technology, loosely defined as anything outside of natural biological functions that is manipulated and used to obtain an objective. To search for a time when our ancestors might have lived more environmentally consciously, one needs evidence, and in this case, it is generally thought that the only real evidence to be found is through fossils of things created and used by these people of so long ago. But how far back in time are we talking about? And is there any other kind of evidence that might shed a bit of light on how people lived in those times?

It is generally acknowledged that starting with our ancestor Homo erectus, humans began to use their hands to make tools (Ponting, 18). This knowledge is based on dating techniques of archaeological findings such as skeletons and early tools, and the rough estimate of the appearance of this tool-using human is around 2 million years ago. In case it is not obvious, that is a very long time. Even in the last 4000 years, the amount of change that human culture and society has undergone is enormous, and at least that much is historically documented by at least some cultures in varying intervals. But to jump all the way back to 2 million years involves a very far leap indeed. There is not much evidence that tells us anything about societies so far back in time. There are some bones and stones, but nothing that really breaks down all those thousands of years into any real understanding of the societies of that era.

So what did people do in all those hundreds of thousands of years? Were they largely a static culture that did not change? Modern humans might tend to think less of such a culture that was in all appearance devoid of creativity, but perhaps we are judging too hastily. Based on evidence that we do have, humans of that time were largely hunters and gatherers, with more importance and emphasis on the 'gatherer' aspect. We know that they created and used some tools, and now more and more evidence is pointing towards the possibility that around 1.5 million years ago they could even use fire to their advantage, and maybe even start fires of their own (McCrone, 30). If these findings are verified, then that implies that even at a relatively early age, our ancestors found ways to manipulate the environment to serve their own purposes, to their own benefit. Were humans always so callous towards the environment? Perhaps we should give ourselves more credit.

After all, those who search into the past for answers rely heavily on noticing any dents or changes we have made in the environment. That is what the evidence basically is. The bones that did not decay, the tools that were left lying around, and the remains of sites where fire was cultivated and maybe even controlled. Would a culture that truly lived in harmony with the environment really leave a trace of itself? It seems that it would hardly provide a satisfying answer to question of human nature in connection to the environment if they did make any marks, because that would say that no matter what, we cannot help but alter our environment, sometimes so dramatically that millions of years from now our interactions can still be traced and observed if one looks at the right clues.

In this light, the more significant clue is perhaps the very difficulty in finding a clue that is tangible to our immediate senses. And even if we did have a lot of data about the ways of the peoples of a million years ago, we should remember that it does not necessarily speak for all people of that time. If there is reason to believe that there were humans who lived without any special reverence or concern for their environment, it does not mean that all people were like that, or vice versa. There were a lot fewer people in those times, and based on some theories, it is thought that they had a lot of free time on their hands. With only around three to four hours of work, a community could gather enough food to sustain them for the day. With the absence of any large number of apparent and/or surviving technologies that we can observe, one possible way that they could have spent their time could theoretically have been through the development of speech and perhaps, as a derivative, the development of rituals and spirituality that may have encouraged a way of life that was less callous towards the natural world. But this is all speculation, and has no real backing other than the stuff that idealism is made of, which does not seem to count for much. The picture may have been vastly different, and unlike with the scenario offered above, there is a bit more evidence behind other views.

One study showed that despite the strong connection between humans and primates, the fundamental difference in humans may be a personality difference that is influenced by predatory animals rather than the more pacific primate families (Stiner). But even this study that observes behavioral patterns in humans that most resemble predatory animals is observed as developing within the timeframe of 200,000 to 10,000 years ago. Even if the implications of this study were to be accepted, it still does not account for the behaviors and actions of the humans living in the rest of their approximate 1.8 million years of existence, which is most of the era of the Homo erectus humans. One interesting thing to take note of is that it the beginnings of our closer relatives, Homo sapiens are traced back to around 100,000 years ago (we apparently fall under the newer category of Homo sapiens sapiens, who came about around 30,000 years ago). So even with a brain case that is ¾ of that of modern humans, they did not seem to do so badly.

Sources cited
"Fired Up," McCrone, John; New Scientist 05/20/00, Vol. 166, Issue 2239, pp. 30-34.
Modern Human Origins - faunal perspectives. Mary C. Stiner, Annual Review of Anthropology, 1993, Vol. 22, Issue 1, pp. 55-82.
Ponting, Clive. A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations. St. Martin's Press, New York, 1991.

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last updated 1/29/03