Early Humans and the Environment

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Early humans were quite different from modern humans. Modern humans have many technologies and advances that we take for granted. In my lifetime (1982 - present) I have seen the five and a half inch floppy yield to the dvd, cloning of sheep and other advances in the fields of math, science, and engineering. Humans and Pre-Humans have always been developing, either intentionally or unintentionally, technologies that were either necessary for the continuation of life, or for the improved quality of life, thus changing the environment.

Early humans lived by hunting and gathering, affecting their environment only minimally. There was a small human population that supported itself by hunting, gathering, and scavenging until about ten thousand years ago (Ponting 19). Ponting asserts that these early human groups lived in conjunction with the environment, planning their migration and food consumption patterns around environmental cycles (Ponting 20). In this case, the environment has more control over humans than humans have over the environment. Gathering and scavenging are much easier for hunter-gatherers than hunting, because with hunting, humans faced additional difficulties and hazards not associated with gathering and scavenging. Not only were there these additional factors, the success rate of hunting was low - top carnivores only make a kill once in every ten tries, so most of the protein in early humans' diets came from scavenging (Ponting 21-22). Early humans also seemed to employ some sort of population control, so that they did not overstress the environment. This type of population planning shows foresight on the part of early humans, and though it can be argued that selective infanticide, selecting for female infants so that there would not be as large an exponential increase in the human population when these children matured, and the abandonment of the elderly would not be humane in these contemporary times, it was necessary for the early hunter-gatherers in order to reduce pressure on the environment (Ponting 23).

Hunting and gathering changed the environment minimally according to Clive Ponting, and eventually humans had a more direct interaction with the environment due to the development of agriculture. In the case of Easter Island, human interaction with the environment actually lead to the demise of that civilization when that interaction became unsustainable and destructive. The early Easter Islanders understood that there were only a few resources on that tiny little island (Ponting 3). The only crop the land could support was the sweet potato, and since it wasn't a very demanding crop, the Easter Islanders were able to develop a culturally sophisticated civilization, complete with religious and ceremonial activity. Unfortunately, the religious/ceremonial activity involved the building and transportation of gigantic statues that required the use of mass quantities of timber, leading to the deforestation of the island. Between the fifth century and the sixteenth century, humans on Easter Island had taken an uninhabited island, developed a civilization, which collapsed when the natural resources were depleted. One can only imagine the number of plant and animal species lost.

Early humans mastered the use of fire, at a date that is disputed by some historians, but their mastery of fire gives insight to changes that will necessarily occur from use of fire that does not stem from natural phenomena. For instance, early humans used fire to help them hunt, by setting fire traps, or by using it to drive the animals off cliffs. Although these methods were inefficient, the human population was small enough that there was minimal environmental impact. Fire also made it more practical for them to hunt larger game, because once the game was killed, it could then be processed and stored. Fire was also useful for keeping predators away at night, and for providing warmth (McCrone 31). Humans could not have moved out into the open plains without fire, so the ability to control it lead to an expansion of human habitations. An expansion of human habitations leads to a larger carrying capacity of the human population. A larger human population leads to a larger environmental footprint the human species will leave behind once it has degraded the environment and caused its own extinction. Since the last part has yet to happen, it is strict conjecture on my part.

Eventually humans also developed a symbiotic relationship with the domesticated dog, thought to be a relative of the wolf. Dr. Ray Coppinger of Hampshire College claim that dogs naturally selected themselves as they interacted with humans to become tame, and then humans picked up these half tame dogs and discovered their trainability (Pennisi, 1540) . With the many different benefits dogs can provide to humans, as guard animals, as aids in hunting, as a last resort food supply, humans had a good incentive to live alongside these animals. In return for these benefits, they also had to feed the dog, so the environmental impact a particular tribe had on the environment would also include the environmental impact of its dogs.

Early humans interact with the environment in a very different way than modern humans, in many ways, they seemed to have much more respect for it and what it provided for them, by way of sustenance and what it allowed them to develop and develop into. It could be argued that humans would not have developed new technologies unless they were necessary, but I feel that the new technologies developed and used by humans were not necessarily needed, but that they made lives easier, and interactions with the environment more complicated.

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last updated 03/05/03