Jessie Whitfield
February 5, 2003
Humans and their environment: an ever-changing balance
               Ever since the arrival of Homo erectus around 3.5 million years ago, the 
development of human culture has been inextricably intertwined with the 
environment; humans have influenced the planet just as the planet has 
influenced humans. Although early hunter-gatherer populations affected 
the environment somewhat, the climate, soil, vegetation and animal life 
dictated much of human lifestyle. The balance between human impact 
on its surroundings and the environment’s influence on humans shifted 
gradually as human technological advances allowed for more 
successful predation and eventually agriculture. Thus, as humans 
evolved from early hunter-gatherers to agriculturally-minded carnivores, 
man’s influence on the ecosystem began to increase relative to the 
environment’s effect on man.
               Because the earliest humans had few technologies, they were far more 
subject to environmental limitations than their later counterparts. Homo 
erectus lived in small, mobile groups, leading hunter-gatherer lifestyles 
that would dominate for the next 10, 000 years. (Ponting, 19) Their diet 
consisted of whatever vegetation and animal resources existed in the 
area. For instance, “ecosystems further away from the equator were 
less productive and therefore the available plant food needed to be 
supplemented – often through the more time consuming task of 
fishing.” (Ponting, 22) Additionally, humans that occupied areas with 
little plant life depended more on hunting than those groups that lived in 
vegetation-rich regions. If resources grew scarce in their area or 
climate/ seasonal shifts occurred, they were forced to roam in search of 
food, making permanent settlement impractical. This mobility spread 
human influence over a wider territory range and limited human impact 
in each area. 
               In addition to their shaping their diet and habitation, the environment 
also governed certain social aspects of early human culture. For 
example, most communities attempted to limit their population growth 
via infanticide (specifically female or handicapped offspring) or the 
abandonment of the elderly and ill. (Ponting, 23) This growth control 
combined with group mobility minimized the early gatherers’ effect on 
their surroundings. 
               With the innovation of weaponry, humans became more successful 
predators, an advancement that amplified human impact on the 
ecosystem. Around 30, 000 years ago, Homo sapiens sapiens first 
began crafting stone blades and barbed harpoons, tools that increased 
hunting efficiency. (Ponting, 29) Compared to gathering, hunting exerted 
a far greater stress on the environment. Humans tended to hunt certain 
groups of animals exclusively. To make matters worse, prey located in 
upper echelons of the food chain took longer to recover from periods of 
over-hunting. In many areas, extinctions of entire species became more 
frequent; early North Americans drove bison off cliffs in droves, visitors 
to Madagascar decimated the flightless bird population and within 1,000 
years, thirty-nine species of birds disappeared from Hawaii. (Ponting, 
34) As human hunting techniques escalate, so too did their effect on the 
               This is not to say, however, that the ecosystem played no role in the 
humans’ development as hunters. In fact, recent studies in fauna 
analysis indicate “our evolutionary history was shaped, at least in part, 
by the forces promoting convergence among predators.” (Stiner, 63) 
Over time, humans seemed to evolve from direct competition with 
surrounding carnivores to a domination of the hunting scene. Fauna 
evidence dating back to Paleolithic times shows an mixing of hominid 
and carnivore-produced bone collections; interestingly enough, the 
fossil evidence from earlier on the timeline indicates a more thorough 
blending of human and non-human debris than later fossils. (Stiner, 61) 
During the Upper Pleistocene specifically, the “human predatory niche . . 
 grew increasingly distinct from that of other large predators.” (Stiner, 
65) This distinction included the type of prey targeted; humans tended to 
hunt prime-adult prey as opposed to the young, elderly or sick animals 
that competing carnivores pursued. Thus interspecies competition 
helped influence human food choice, providing another example of how 
the ecosystem affected humans. Even though the ecosystem’s impact 
on human hunting was small compared to humans’ effect on the 
ecosystem, this relationship is still worth noting.
               In Asia, South America and China approximately 10, 000 years ago, 
experienced a transition that would allow them to assert even more 
control over their environment: “the first great transition” into agriculture. 
This shift was gradual, as humans oscillated between cultivating land 
and hunting/gathering techniques. Increased population densities 
forced humans to find a more efficient method of food production that 
utilized a smaller area; agriculture provided the answer. Once again, 
advancement in human technology contributed to this change in lifestyle 
and in humans’ impact on the environment. Of course, the climate and 
soil of a region determined what crops could be harvested, yet this was 
far outweighed by agriculture’s impact on the ecosystem. Essentially, 
agriculture involves “replacing the natural system with an artificial one,” 
which undeniably modifies the existing flora by selecting for certain 
crops and excluding others. (Ponting, 33) Certain agricultural practices, 
such as the “slash and burn” technique, disturbed everything from soil 
content to vegetation to animal habitats. Additionally, the advent of 
agriculture permitted permanent settlements, so that one area would 
have to sustain human influence on a consistent basis. Eventually, 
humans even started altering water pathways; in 5500 BC, irrigation first 
emerges in Mesopotamia. (Ponting, 55) Obviously, agriculture affected 
all aspects of the ecosystem and environment; with their transition into 
agriculture, humans registered their most drastic impact on the 
ecosystem yet.
               A close analysis of the progression of early humans’ relationship with 
their environment reveals a specific pattern: as humans evolved and 
became more technologically advanced, their impact on the ecosystem 
increased while the environment’s control over human lifestyle 
decreased. The earliest humans were most susceptible to their 
ecosystem because they lacked sufficient technologies to overcome 
environmental constraints. However, as these technologies appeared 
and contributed to changes in hunting and agriculture, humans 
acquired the ability to assert more control over their surroundings. Thus, 
the relationship between early humans and their environment 
embodied a balance of power that was ever-changing.