Reflections on Early Humans and Their Environment

Scott Long

Scott Long
Reflection on Early Human's Relation to Their Environment

The relationship early humans had to the environment that surrounded them is one that is shrouded in debate. As Thomas Hobbes said, and as every subsequent anthropological writer has quoted, life for early man was supposedly "nasty, brutish and short". Were hunter/gatherers lives before the development of agriculture ruled by the Darwinian whims of the environment that surrounded them, or were they able to raise above the toil of everyday survival to better control their own fates? In relation, what specifically was early human's relation to their environment? Did early populations of humans rampantly destroy their surrounding environments, causing mass extinction and climate change wherever they migrated? Or rather did early humans co-exist with their environments in as near to natural harmony as the race has come so far?
Were early humans controlled by, or controllers of their immediate environments? It is indeed true that human tribes wandered from place to place, following herds of animals or simply searching for the most plentiful copse of berry bushes. As Clive Ponting points out in his Green History of the World, early human tribes practiced what we would consider today to be barbaric forms of population control, killing twins, the very elderly, and any child or person with disabilities of any kind. As "nasty, brutish and short" proponents would point out, this population control strongly suggests an inability by early humans to scrape out more than a threadbare existence; any member of the tribe that could pull their own weight was an unacceptable liability. In addition, it should be noted that many advances early humans made to survive and adapt might not necessarily have been of their doing or intent. Present day scientists put forward the idea that man's connection to dogs, which originated during the hunter/gatherer period, was probably more a result of wolves' curiosity or bravery, rather than a conscious effort by human's to domesticate the species. The adaptation is assumed to have benefited both species, however it is worth noting that early human's had no conscious or premeditated control over their connection to dogs. (It is assumed that the success of early humans, I.E. the abundance of food or scraps around their camps, was most probably one of the main draws for the dogs which originally approached, but that and other rebuttals will be saved for a later paragraph). Additionally, as Jared Diamond points out in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, even the domestication of agriculture was not a conscious decision by early humans, but instead a sequence of separate decisions spanning several thousand years. Wild crops became suitable for agriculture not through any conscious effort of early humans, rather their selection of those foods that most pleased them, larger peas or sweeter berries, allowed the growth and propagation of those specific favored plants. However, the growth was not accomplished through any device of humans beyond that of their digestive system. The seeds of the plants they ate, having been fertilized either by their relegation to the trash heap or through their trip through our digestive system and into our latrines, became the first strains of domesticated plants. Again, our awareness and control of these events was largely absent; rather than human's superior intellect and skills predicating their rise to global dominance, it would seem that we advanced almost by scraping by until agriculture, through no particular effort of our own, fell into our lap and drew us out of the mire of our development and propelled humanity to the place it <ahem> belonged.
I find proponents of this view to be sadly misguided and especially uninformed. While it is true that humans were affected by their environment, it took the rise of industry to truly remove us from what could be considered a normal ecological cycle. Their level of advancement and the degree of their expansion indicates that hunter/gatherers, at least in some cases, rose above the constraints of their surroundings to flourish. The traditional view of early human development, partially put forward in the preceding paragraph, fails to take into account a variety of ways in which hunter/gatherers controlled their surroundings. Evidence of the use of fire, regardless of the source that created it, has been found dating back to the time of Homo Erectus. Hunter/gatherers used fire to clear out unwanted brush so that preferred plants could grow in. In addition, fire was used for hunting, to either attract animals to be hunted or corral them into prescribed killing grounds. Along with fire, the creation and use of increasingly sophisticated tools for hunting suggest an attempt by humans to control the circumstances of their existence. The mass extinctions of mega fauna in Australia, as well as the climate change that accompanied human's arrival there, support even more the view that human's, whether they know it or not, had significant control of their environment. In addition, the work and ease of gathering food has often been underestimated. Even today's hunter/gatherers, who have by now been marginalized to the worst remaining land, have a fair amount of ease collecting enough food to get by. The average amount of the day spent in food gathering rarely exceeds six hours, and even today hunter/gatherers can often subsist by simply gathering large amounts of nuts. Their diets are high in protein and carbohydrates, and they show little sign of the deficiency diseases that have been known to plague agricultural societies in the past. The traditional view of the brutish lifestyle of hunter/gatherers fails to take into account the control over their environment that many of them evidenced. Additionally, it is important to note the great success with which humans colonized the Earth. Even without the innovation of agriculture hunter/gatherers ranged as far as Australia, North and South America, and would eventually enhabit almost every corner of the globe.
Human's success in expanding beyond their origins in the Olduvai Gorge brings up a different question, one more prevalent to the race in its current situation. Was human advancement predicated on the misuse of the environment, or rather did the hunter/gatherers subsist in as close to a natural order as the race had experienced up to that point or since?
It can be posited that throughout history humans have, with or without intent, employed the destruction of their environment as their main tool for advancement, restrained from widespread destruction only because of their relatively small populations. Hunter/gatherers, even before agriculture gutted the Fertile Crescent, rashly threw their evolutionary weight around. There is evidence of mass killings when hunting for bison in North America, thousands of bison killed when the need was for a few. It should also be noted that Human's arrival in such places as Australia or Madagascar resulted in mass extinctions of the fauna of those areas. Large fires to clear space for preferred plants to grow are even believed to have permanently changed the climate of inland Australia. Fires were used throughout the world in slash and burn techniques to clear land and promote the growth of specific types of plants. It appears that there is nowhere humans colonized, except perhaps for the arctic, where they did not cause noticeable change to the environment around them. Perhaps the most obvious example of the wanton abuse of the environment can be seen at Easter Island. Dramatic deforestation toppled a highly advanced society so completely that within a few hundred years' inhabitants of the island were no longer aware of the significance or origins of the monuments among which they lived.
While it is true that the expansion of human's has significantly marked the world environment, I would be remiss if I did not comment on the connection early humans showed to their environment. Before agriculture, and even today, the way in which many humans related to the world around them not only showed our ability to live in as close to harmony with nature as is possible, it also demonstrates the fact that we did and can subsist in a mutually beneficial relationship with our surrounding environment. Much has been made about the use of fire by hunter/gatherers in slash and burn techniques to promote the growth of plants they favored. However, to merely consider fires being lit as evidence of harmful environmental manipulation is to partially miss the point. Aborigine culture has persisted in harmony with their environment for somewhere between 40 and 60,000 years. Fire use is passed down as a survival tool, and land is divided into categories based on how long ago it was burned. Burning is used to hunt, but also to encourage the growth of a plethora of different plants whose tubers the Aborigine's eat. In this case, selected burning actually increases the biodiversity of the area in which it is used.* In addition, any and all early humans who expanded out from their origins had to adapt to the environments they entered into. Humans even today in the arctic follow specific hunting regimens depending on the season. There entire existence is based on being completely in tune with the environment that surrounds them.
Were early human's healthy users or abusers of their environment? The true answer, if there can truly be one for so broad a topic, is probably somewhere in between these two extremes. The view that humans have always advanced through the manipulation of the environment is somewhat better supported. I at least have seen no evidence that humans large advances have not come without the expanded use or destruction of some part of the natural world. Many academics could rightly point out that this has always been the case, and we seem to have done pretty well for ourselves as a race. Why not continue in the same vein? But if it is indeed true that we are as intelligent and advanced as we believe ourselves to be, isn't it far past time that we demonstrated our superiority not through the imposition of our will on the world that surrounds us, but rather through our harmony with it, our struggle to not only ensure our advancement but the advancement of the environment we live in as well?

* The data gained about the Aborigines cannot be supported as of now by literary sources; it was instead gleaned from my older brother, who spent the fall semester in Australia, at times living with an Aborigine tribe.

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last updated 1/29/03