Hunter Gatherers: Not-So-Eco-Friendly

Carolyn Whipple

For almost 2 million years, humans survived by hunting animals and gathering plants (and probably fungi), eating off the land without, supposedly, altering the environment to make obtaining food easier.  Early man, it is said, worked with what nature gave him.  The ultimate sustainable lifestyle, we often presume.  These people, we say, must have been in touch with the land, knowing the nuances and limits of maintaining a balanced ecosystem and never over-harvesting or over-hunting.  It is easy to believe that they must have been truly earth-friendly, sustainability-minded people.  But did the hunter-gatherers live a truly sustainable lifestyle?  Was it really such a utopic, in-touch-with-nature way of living?  There is distinct evidence that says that it was hardly sustainable at all.  After all, something had to bring about the development of agriculture.

The hunter-gatherers were nomadic people, moving from place to place when food scarcities made it necessary.  They lived by hunting animals and gathering foodstuffs in one area until the resources were used up, then moved on to a new area, where they would live until resources again became low.  This way of living was far from environmentally conscious.  The reason that no lasting damage was inflicted was that once they moved on from an area, these early men would not revisit it for a significant period of time, often upwards of a year.  In this time, the ecosystem had time to recover and renew itself.  By the time humans came back to that particular area, chances were that it was almost completely, if not fully, recovered, and, if it wasn’t, there was no shortage of viable living spaces.  However, as the population of the earth grew, areas were stripped of their resources almost to nothing, but were not given enough time to recover, as more there became more of a shortage of viable land. 

Hunter-gatherer societies had their own methods of population control, but despite their killing of infants and abandonment of the elderly or the invalids, populations rose along with successful acquirement of food.  When one group became too big to be efficient as a hunting, gathering, nomadic community, part of it would break off.  For millions of years, there were so few humans on the earth that this dispersion method worked well.  Unfortunately, unlike water, which, when spread around, dries up, humans, when spread around, just multiply. 
Population growth was steady and slow for almost two million years.  About 10,000 years ago, it reached a critical number.  Perhaps it was that groups were becoming larger due to failed population control, and could not move around as easily.  Perhaps, as a result of competition between groups, a larger number of people (for defense purposes) was desired.  Perhaps the larger number of people roaming the planet was resulting in areas being revisited before resources could be renewed.  Perhaps it was a combination of factors.  Whatever the reason, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle began to lose its efficiency and success.  It became necessary that more food came from a smaller area, and that food was made available almost year round.  Agriculture, despite requiring far more effort, offered a greater, more dependable, controllable yield of food.  It was a natural progression for a growing population, which had, until it became less profitable, been nearly decimating areas of the earth and moving on to repeat the process.          

History shows that it was the introduction and development of agriculture and the domestication of animals and plants that brought about most the evils of society, for example: greed, social stratification, warfare, organized religion, a lack of regard for the health of the planet, and, perhaps the worst of all evils, excess.  It also was the spark for some of our greatest technological advances and cherished cultural institutions: writing, arithmetic, religion and spirituality, craftsmanship, music, government, economy, machines While it is true that agriculture was possibly the most important technological development in the history of humanity, and certainly sped up and magnified the development of many of the institutions and technologies that resulted in both positive and negative impacts on society and the earth, I argue that it did not mark the end of a sustainable era.  Rather, it marked a slowly realized tipping point for the earth.  More people meant the land had less time to recover.  More people meant competition for ideal hunting and gathering.  More people meant more difficulty moving around.  Because population growth is virtually inevitable, agriculture was virtually inevitable.

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last updated 1/25/07