An Examination of Life Two Million Years Ago


            In order to make a complete assessment of the technological advancements of modern civilization one must first have a working understanding of early man and the environment he/she lived in. Currently, there seems to be a debate going on as to whether the quality of life of early man was better or worse than that of human beings in modern times. It had been assumed for a number of years that, as Hobbes had phrased it, life for early man was, “nasty, brutish and short’[1]. Ponting however, argues that life for early man, “was without [a] doubt the most successful and flexible way of life adopted by humans and the one that caused the least damage to natural ecosystems,” (18). Both perspectives seem to be equally plausible and for that very reason this essay will not delve into that debate any further[2]. The purpose of this essay then, is to establish a foundation of understanding for early man, the environment he/she coexisted with and his/her means of survival.


            Fossils of Homo Erectus (modern human’s direct ancestor) have been dated as far back as 1.5 to 2 million years ago (Ponting pg.18). These early human beings were known to inhabit several different stretches of land ranging from Ethiopia to southern Africa. The temperature in these regions varied from tropical to sub-tropical and the main source of nourishment for these individuals came from hunting and gathering. It is difficult judge from fossilized evidence and the comparison of different tools, exactly what life was like during these times. For this very reason, archaeologists look to analyze the way of life of groups such as the Bushmen of south-west Africa- who continue to be primarily nomadic hunters and gatherers. Given the limited contact that the Bushmen and other such nomadic tribes have had with modern civilization, they provide a very powerful example of what life would be like without agriculture, settlements, and herding.     In general, Ponting emphasizes many of the positive aspects of nomadic life, as observed through these modern-day tribes. First, he begins by stating that these tribes do not, as is commonly misconceived, live under the, “constant threat of starvation,” (20). In fact, Ponting argues that many of these tribes have very adequate and nutritious diets. The bushmen of south-west Africa for instance consume a large amount of the mongongo nut. According to Ponting, this nut, “contains 5 times the calories and 10 times the amount of protein of an equivalent amount of cereal crops and half a pound (about 300 nuts) has the calories of two-and-a-half pounds of cooked rice and the protein of almost a pound of beef,” (20). Furthermore, gathering these and other foods requires very little time, therefore allotting a great amount of leisure time for the tribe members to endeavor in warfare, ceremonies or other interests[3]. The same however, cannot be said for the hunting endeavors of the tribe.


Although the tribes were known both for hunting and gathering, their real focus was on gathering. Hunting, as Ponting makes clear, is a very difficult and inconsistent means of attaining nourishment. Not only is it difficult to kill an animal, but at the time, early humans were not nearly as talented a predator as were lions or tigers. Most meat enjoyed by the tribe tended to come from scavenging animals killed by other predators, rather than by hunting it. More so, hunting and even gathering were both made more challenging by the nomadic aspect of the tribes.


            The tribes move around in small groups, composed of approximately 25-50 people, but gather together in larger groups for special occasions (marriages, ceremonies, etc.) (Ponting 20). The constant movement of these tribes results in two rather interesting phenomenon[4]. First, material possessions are not only of little concern to the tribes people but they are actually considered an impediment to the tribe’s progress (for they slow the tribe’s movement from one region to another). This policy applied to food as much as it did for material goods (therefore lessening the chance of the tribes acquiring excess goods from nature). Secondly, the constant traveling and the sometimes limited resources resulted in population control. Tribes achieved this, “through a number of accepted social customs…the most widespread was infanticide involving the selected killing of certain categories such as twins, the handicapped and a proportion of female offspring,” (Ponting pg. 23)[5]. This practice seemed to be a way of dealing with the environment they lived in and procuring the survival of the majority of the tribe.


Another means of procuring survival was the development of weapons and tools. As Homo Erectus developed, so did his/her tools and weaponry. In the early stages of Homo Erectus’ development, most tools were limited to “crude stone choppers from pebbles,” but as they progressed they soon devised wooden spears, the use of wood, skins and fire (Ponting pg.24). As of now, the use of fire by Homo Erectus is still highly debatable and highly controversial. Recently, Jean-Laurent  Monnier of the University of Rennes has, “tentatively dated material from what appears to be an ancient fireplace back to 465,000,” (Balter pg.2). Prior to this, the first evidence of controlled fire was dated back 200,000 (during the time of Homo Sapiens). The implications of finding controlled fired during the time of the Homo Erectus are great indeed. This would imply that humans had been much greater thinkers much earlier on than they had been given credit for.


Even after a careful analysis of early man’s means of attaining nourishment, his/her nomadic lifestyle and his/her development of tools,  it is still difficult to assess  whether life today is worse or better than life million of years ago. Still, hopefully the background information provided in this essay will assist the reader in drawing their own conclusion.


[1] (Ponting pg.19)

[2] By this I mean to say that both perspectives have very concrete arguments and since I have not decided which one is more convincing to me, I cannot argue one over the other.

[3] Note that warfare may not be the best or most beneficent substitute for finding food.

[4] At least from my own modern-day, capitalist-raised mind-set.

[5] Personally, I understand how this behavior may have become accepted but I would not consider this part of the happy existence Ponting is referring to.