From H. Erectus to Now: How Far Have We Really Come?
Humans, it seems, will always idealize the past and glorify earlier ways of life. From ten to ten thousand years ago, the past holds a simpler way of life, one that was closer to the land and slower paced. The drain on the land that we see today is due, we say, to our unquenchable thirst for bigger cars, brighter lights, and newer homes that characterizes the “modern,” twenty-first century man. The environment would be a lot better off if we could return to living off the land like the Native Americans or even the early colonists. Clive Ponting writes in his A Green History of the World, “[subsistence through hunting and gathering] was without a doubt the most successful and flexible way of life adopted by humans and the one that caused the least damage to natural ecosystems” (18). The hunter-gatherer lifestyle appears to be one in tune with nature instead of battling and conquering it every step of the way, but evidence of the practices of these early humans tells a very different story. From the first upright step, early humans have manipulated their environment using techniques that could have had devastating effects on their surroundings had there been more of them. Our ability to innovate has indeed allowed us to “spread across the face of the globe into every terrestrial ecosystem and to survive not just in favourable areas with easily obtained food,” but in doing so humans have altered every one (and destroyed some) of these ecosystems (Ponting 18).
Survival of the early humans depended on their ability to manipulate their environment in order to extract enough food to meet their nutritional needs. Dependent on hunting and foraging, the early humans developed techniques to minimize their impact on the species they depended on for sustenance, including seasonal movement and rotational hunting. Despite these techniques, some of the species hunted by early humans were pushed to extinction. (This is evidenced mainly in large mammals such as bison, wooly mammoths, and the musk ox in Eurasia, but extinction also occurred in species of large flightless birds on islands like New Zealand and Madagascar.) Humans also altered ecosystems by encouraging the growth of certain plants over others through transplanting, minor irrigation, and clearing with fire (Ponting 32-34). Early humans pushed beyond the inherent limits of their environment instead of existing, as other animals do, by the rules of nature; from the very beginning, “humans were at odds with nature, changing it, manipulating it, and attempting to tame it” (Williams 14).
Early humans’ relationship to fire demonstrates their ability to alter their environment. Even before humans could generate fire themselves, they used the force of fire opportunistically to clear forests, rousing game and flushing out other food sources like insects (Williams 17-18). This sort of frequent burning changed the plant composition by selecting for fire-resistant species that could survive it, as well as plants that could quickly regenerate or colonize an area after a burn. Use of fire also reduced the total forest coverage and created open areas that had once been covered with trees; for example, the Maori tribes in New Zealand stripped the islands of nearly half of all forests and created a new habitat that was a mixture of bracken, fern, tussock, and scrub (Williams 21). The use of fire proved devastating to some species while others thrived as a result, and it certainly played a significant role in altering the climate and forest cover wherever humans employed it.
Despite all of the changes that early humans imposed on their environment, their impact was relatively low and the hunter gather way of life continued for thousands of years. When compared to modern humans, it does appear that early humans lived in a relative harmony with nature. This harmony is superficial at best; the apparent sustainability of their practices is due in large part to their small numbers. Ponting writes, “Apart from specific cultural restrictions one of the main reasons why gathering and hunting groups, in many instances, avoided over-exploiting the available natural resources was that their numbers were small and therefore the pressure they placed on the environment limited” (32). If these same practices were used by humans today, numbering over six billion, we would quickly deplete every natural resource available to that lifestyle. While these early humans did not pose an immediate threat to the global environment, from the very beginning humans were in a position to weigh heavily on the natural functioning of ecosystems and eventually to tip the precarious balance of predator versus prey.
Though hunter-gatherer societies lived close to nature, the relationship was one of dominance and conquering. Early humans used fire to alter their surroundings for their immediate benefit and, in some places, hunted animals to extinction. The overall impact on the environment was limited to some degree by the simplicity of their methods (i.e. the lack of extraction techniques to access buried resources like metals and water) and in part by the adoption of methods that allowed their resources to regenerate. However, this way of life was never sustainable and as populations increased, so did the degree to which humans altered and manipulated the ecosystems they lived in to support their growing numbers. The myth of hunter-gatherer societies as ones that lived within the balance of nature is based on the limited effect humans had when populations were still low. Our past suggests that the human instinct to harness nature to improve our way of life will continue to lead us toward an increasingly unsustainable future. Humans have yet to achieve a harmonic and sustainable relationship with nature. Our success in this depends on us looking forward because the solution will not be found in our past.
Ponting, Clive. A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations. St. Martin's Press, New York, 1991.
Williams, Michael, "Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis" (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2003) pp. 3-36.
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