The Relationship Between Early Humans and Their Environment

by Katherine Athanasiades

In television shows and textbooks, early humans are often presented as being an isolated force within their environments - that is, that they evolved with relatively little influence from their environment. This view often stresses the advances of human beings and their exploitation of the environment as a function of their anatomical development, particularly brain capacity. However, it fails to address the fact that human beings were not as we know ourselves to be today; that we were simply another large carnivore interacting with many different types of animals and environmental conditions, who happened to evolve into a social creature with capacities for reason and innovation. I believe that that aspect of human evolution is extremely important because it is the only way in which one can begin to decipher the reasons why humans evolved from a relatively "dumb" creature, one among many, to the animal which they are today.

In A Green History of the World, Clive Ponting analyzes human history from humans' hunter-gatherer roots, their ability to stand upright, their use of speech, and their use of tools. Mary Stiner would emphasize that although these aspects of humanity are important, it is just as fruitful, if not more so, to study the interactions of humans with their faunal counterparts. In doing so, one can try to uncover the reasons why humans evolved into large predators capable of using speech and tools to survive rather than remain like their primate relatives, who are relatively non-predatory. In Stiner's article, "Modern Human Origins - Faunal Perspectives," she emphasizes that because of changes within human beings themselves and changes in the environment (climactic conditions and types of surrounding predators, competitors, and prey) were human beings able to perhaps diverge from these primates with non-modern human characteristics and instead evolve to resemble their predatory competitors.

Interestingly, a work on the nature of dogs has shed some insight into this idea of Stiner's - that the predatory competitors of humans rather than human ancestors heavily influenced humans in their hunting and lifestyle habits. It has been debated for some time how dogs became domesticated animals, how and from where they evolved, and how they helped humans to evolve. In a New York Times article by Nicholas Wade ("From Wolf to Dog, Yes, but When?"), Wade convincingly argues that perhaps dogs were never domesticated by humans, but rather domesticated themselves as a survival skill. The companionship between species of human and wolf-dog would have been a symbiotic relationship, because not only could each aid the other in food procurement, but they could also protect each other and keep each other warm in the freezing cold (in addition to warmth from fire). The article goes on to explain that when species have been cohabitating for such a long time, they influence each other's genetic traits. Therefore, humans and dogs could have easily evolved together and affected each other's traits in order to increase chances of survival for both species. It is also quite possible that wolves or wolves that were evolving into dogs greatly improved the human's own hunting strategies and techniques, due to human capacity to imitate other species. However, humans had been hunting for millions of years before they became companions with dogs, and so it is more likely that analyzing the hunting habits of other types of archeofauna would procure greater insight into the knowledge and evolving survival behaviors of early humans (Stiner).

Also interesting is the debate over the length of time humans have purposefully used fire. In analyzing this question, one can determine for how long in this way have humans been manipulating their environments. Whether or not Homo erectus, an ancestor of the modern human, used fire with purpose is still up for debate (Michael Balter, "Did Homo erectus Tame Fire First?"), but it is well-established knowledge that Homo sapiens used fire for cooking and constructing tools. The fact that humans used fire allowed them to radically alter their environments. Not only could they cook their food, keep warm, and keep predators away, they could also use fire to drive herds of animals over a cliff in order to harvest a lot of meat. One could also clear areas of brush by using fire - a tactic that may have helped in the rise of agriculture and shepherding. With the mastery of fire, humans able to change their lifestyle and the environment surrounding them to a larger degree in order to better suit their needs for survival. This would help them to cope with climactic changes as well as the processing of food. In this way, humans were able to alter their environments while being themselves shaped by them.

In conclusion, I believe that it is essential to consider humans within the context of their environment when studying human evolution. The environmental conditions (climactic changes, types of archeofauna coexisting) that helped influence human life presented practical problems that humans had to solve in order to survive. As humans evolved, and eventually began having more control over their environments, they began resembling humans as we know ourselves today - which may be why we apply an image of ourselves controlling our environment to those ancient peoples who may not have had speech and were just another species of predator. If we are to uncover accurate information, it is important to accept that no matter what we believe ourselves to be, we had ancestors that were shaped by the environment and slowly evolved into the creatures we are now because of our relationship with our environment.

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last updated 2/7/03