Culturally Influenced Technology: Turning Hunter/Gatherers into Empire Builders


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 and scale."4

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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last updated 2/22/03