Humans have caused a significant impact upon the myriad of environments
found on Earth. Just as human beings have evolved over time, the cultures
that are a product of these biological changes have evolved as well. Culture,
as defined by famed ethnographer Edward Tylor, is "that complex whole
which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other
capabilities and habits acquired by [a person] as a member of society."1
The environmental impacts humans have achieved have been through the continuing
development of technology. As different cultures arose throughout history,
the influence they had upon technology has changed with them. While it is
possible to comment on the influence of every culture upon technology over
the last 12,000 years, I will attempt to focus primarily on the earliest civilization.
The earliest and oldest form of economy for hominids consisted
of hunting and gathering. This system was adequate for small nomadic bands
as food was likely plentiful and a significant amount of the day was spent
participating in leisure activities. These early humans, Homo erectus,
utilized several basic technologies like fire and striking stones. However,
very little culture was present during this time. As a result, technology
remained static as tools were discarded immediately following its use. With
the absence of elaborate rituals and beliefs, there was "no pressure
to experiment and no new tool traditions to pass from one generation to the
next."2 Then, about 10,000 years ago, humans experienced
the first great transition, the adoption of agriculture as their primary economic
system. Agriculture marked a significant turning point in human society as
aspects of culture began to emerge.
Developed by Homo sapiens, a more recent ancestor then
Homo erectus, agriculture represented the shift away from a mobile
to a sedentary existence. These subsistence farmers populated a region known
as the Fertile Crescent, an area that "curves some 2000 kilometers from
the Mediterranean coast and the Negev Desert in the west to the Zagros Mountains
in the east."3 Warm and wet weather provided not
only ideal growing conditions, but also encouraged population increases for
preferred animal species. A diverse array of societies began to inhabit this
area with each adopting customs based on their local landscape and available
food sources. These fledgling cultures began to place symbolic significance
in all manners of life. This process was facilitated by the use of language,
which allowed individuals new degrees of personal expression. "The agricultural
revolution led to a period of cultural evolution unprecedented in its rapidity
The spread of agriculture to other areas resulted in additional
cultural development and technological advancements. Societies found in Mesopotamia
became known as hydraulic civilizations. A region of agriculturally fertile
lands with unreliable rainfall, it was necessary to manipulate water resources
in order to ensure sufficient growth. Irrigation canals provided the water
that was required for simple floodwater farming. "The agrarian economy
in these great irrigated river valleys became the function of the state, which
was also the sole owner of land."5 Thus, distribution
of irrigation water, maintenance of canals, and the collection and storage
of surplus foods became entrusted to a bureaucratic ruling class. Other new
technologies like the spear-thrower and the bow and arrow resulted in greater
efficiency while hunting. Pottery originated during this period in time and
is closely related to human's early attempt at settled life. Pottery was "used
to transport, cook, and store a wide range of foods, liquids, and other supplies."6
As societies became more complex, pottery assumed specialized functions that
included burial urns and incense burners.
As societies became increasingly sedentary through the use of
agriculture, they began to domesticate animals as well as plants. "One
critical advantage of the settled life was that it permitted the development
of technologies that were highly useful but not portable."7
Thus allowing the creation of apparatuses like mortars and pestles that were
used to grind flour. As a result of the success of agriculture and its related
technologies, population densities began to rise. These factors contributed
to the harmful byproducts of agriculture. For example, efficient weapons caused
intensification in hunting and resulted in depleted game herds and subsequent
mega-faunal extinctions. Ironically, this produced the need for even more
agriculture to compensate for these hunting deficiencies. Crop yields declined
in Mesopotamia as a result of salinization in their irrigation based agricultural
economies. In other areas, high populations forced farmers to plant on fields
that did not have enough fallow time, also limiting crop yeids. These changes
resulted in additional cultural revolutions.
As hunter/gatherers adopted agriculture as their primary economic
system, they abandoned their nomadic lifestyles in favor of a more sedentary
existence. As a result of increased socialization due to population increase,
each of these societies developed its own unique culture. Technology was heavily
influenced by these cultural revolutions especially after tools and equipment
began to include ritual uses. Unfortunately, culture and technology rarely
combines to produce a utopian society. In fact, as evidenced by Easter Island,
culture and technology are capable of significant amounts of destruction and
even human extinction.
1. Ashmore, Wendy and Robert J. Sharaer. Discovering Our Past:
A Brief Introduction to Archaeology [third edition]. New York: McGraw-Hill.
2000. Pg. 17.
2. McCrone, John. Fired Up in New Scientist. May 20, 2000. Vol. 166. Issue 2239. Pg. 34.
3. Smith, Bruce D. The Emergence of Agriculture. New York: Scientific American Library. 1995. Pg. 50.
4. Ehrlich, Paul R. Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect. Washington, D.C.: Island Press. 2000. Pg. 227.
5. Roberts, Neil. The Holocene: An Environmental History. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. 1998. Pg. 173.
6. Ashmore and Sharaer. Pg. 121.
7. Ehrlich. Pg. 237.
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