Humans and their environment, a two way street?

Erin Dwyer-Frazier

Homo Sapiens appeared on the planet a mere heartbeat ago in the total history of the planet, a paltry 100,000 years ago. In that time, humans have made astonishing gains as a species, exploding in population as well as technological expertise. Humans have most certainly had a dramatic impact on the environment, with such dramatic examples as the hole in the o-zone layer and the dwindling size of the rainforest. However, many scientists studying early humans have begun to studies ways that early humans with primitive technologies, such as fire, also affected their environment. Modern anthropologists and archeologists tend to characterize primitive humans as subjects and the environment as object within their relationship, but it seems possible to examine the opposite relationship. “Mother Nature” had existed for billions of years before humans arrived on the planet, and it seems likely that it would have a far greater affect on primitive humans then humans could have had on it. Humans relationships with two early “technologies,” dogs and fire, seem to be examples of the environment affecting early man.

The domestication of dogs was most certainly a important part of human history. The actual time of domestication is in a great deal of dispute. One pair of evolutionary geneticists, Robert Wayne and Charles Vila, theorized that the dogs first separated from wolves 135,000 years ago. However, another geneticist Peter Savolainen has theorized a more recent domestication date of 40,000-15,000 years ago. He also argued that dogs all originated from one small population of dogs in east Asia, and spread out from there. (Science, 1541) It seems clear though, that dogs and humans have had a long established relationship. However, even the nature of this relationship is also contested.

The current relationship between dog and human is clearly defined as humans as dominant, or at least that is what dog owners wish to believe. However, it does not follow necessarily that the dog/human relationship was always so clearly defined. Dr. Richard Klein, a Stanford University archaeologist, characterized man’s relationship with the dog saying, “This is a symbiotic relationship with substantial time depth. You could imagine dogs would be useful for giving warning signals, or tracking other animals, so you can see how both sides would benefit.” (NY Times) It is possible that dogs domesticated humans, just as humans domesticated dogs. One theory of domestication, argued by Ray Coppinger, is that particularly brave, and friendly wolves would attach themselves to humans and survive more successfully because of the positive advantage gained from the relationship. (NY Times) Even if the more traditional theory of domestication, humans taking in wolf pups and raising them, is more accurate, it seems clear that the relationship with dogs affected humans. They would have evolved as well, so that those which liked dogs and cared for them well would have been positively selected for over those who did not’t keep dogs. Perhaps this explains why dogs and humans spread out across the planet together, for example they most likely crossed the Bering Strait into the Americas together. (NY Times) Though dogs changed greatly through their relationship with humans, early humans also benefited and changed from their relationship with dogs.

Fire is another example of nature greatly affecting humans, though scientists tend to focus instead on the human’s affect on the environment instead. The debate over when humans first developed controlled fire is greatly contested by archaeologists. However, it seems likely at this point that Home Erectus, a close ancestor to humans probably used fire in some controlled manner. Whether fire was a normal technology that they were very familiar with, or whether it was merely an accidental thing that happened because they tented to bang stones together to make hand axes, they most likely had fire. Some scientists, such as Clive Gamble, argue that Homo erectus would have had a “15 minute culture,” and that they would have used fire simply for warmth and basic needs. However, he argues that the development of language in Home sapiens allowed fire to take on its ceremonial and cultural importance in hunter gatherer tribes, and that this never would have happened with Home erectus. (McCrone, 34) However, fire must have had a more important role in this process than McCrone seems to give it.

If fire was a part of Home erectus life, it would seem logical to assume that it was a part of human life from the beginning as well. Why then would it be assumed that humans developed culture and language first, and then developed the ceremonial nature of fire? If fire was important to the first humans, this would suggest an obvious forum for the early developments of language. The development of culture probably did not’t proceed the use of fire in human culture, but instead probably inspired it. The early hunter gatherer culture would have formed around already established communal activities, such as gathering around a fire for warmth and to cook, rather than inventing all new uses for fire. Fire could easily be seen as an environmental factor being adapted to be a human technology, and then changing the humans who used it as much as the fire itself.

The relationship of humans with their environment has been carefully studied for many years. However, in general, the relationship has been characterized as humans affecting their environment, while the reverse relationship has been mostly ignored. This seems to be a classic example of the basic human-centered bias of many scientific minds. However, it seems unreasonable to believe that the environment that surrounded them had no affect on the early Homo sapiens. The environment had been affecting the development of lifestyles and habits for millions of years, and there would be no reason to believe that humans broke this pattern. The relationships that early humans with dogs and with fire both seem to be examples of the two way relationship between humans and their environment. Human culture and lifestyle most likely developed as much in response to the introduction of dogs and fire, as dogs or fire changed in their relationship with humans. It is indisputable that humans have in fact affected the environment of the earth substantially, but that does not detract from the great affect that the environment has had on humans through out their evolution.

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last updated 1/29/03