Early Man as an "Environmental Animal"

Melissa Frick

Many modern philosophers and pundits have suggested myriad ways in which man is driven to live. Francis Fukuyama has said that man is a political animal; Karl Marx has said that man is an economic animal; and Samuel Huntington has claimed man as a cultural animal. All three of these writers have overlooked is the history of mankind. Along the way, humans have been directed to a certain fate by the resources around them and the natural forces inflicted upon them; man is not the animal regarded by any of these philosophers; instead, he is an environmental animal.

Modern society has not recognized man’s existence earlier than 2000 years ago, let alone 15,000 years. However, it is this early existence of man that helps to define him as an environmental animal. Even before man was actually considered “man” and roamed Earth as an ape, he was a complete slave to the environment. Only in the past 15,000 years has man begun to loosen the chains of the environment by creating technologies that defy the gravity of Earth’s limitations.

Before the arrival of Homo sapiens, the environment endowed apes with the ability to harvest resources and build technology. Many apes were fruit-eaters; since fruit was sporadically distributed (requiring the memory to remember its location) and signaled when it was to be eaten (requiring the recognition of a ripe fruit), only the apes who were the cleverest could harvest the fruit, flourish, and then pass on their knowledge to the next generation, with each succeeding generation being more proficient than its predecessor. Thanks to a slight mutation that allowed greater brain capacity, a different strain of ape began to realize its ability to use the natural forces of the environment by using the natural resources around them.

Even in the Stone Age, technology, driven by natural forces, has provided a fundamental cultural base for humans. The most used tool by humanoids was the stone hammer. Stone had a great effect not only for its diversity of use, but because of its abundance. Its use allowed hunter-gathers to survive. The wide production of stone tools made obtaining food and cooking food much simpler and less time consuming for the hunter-gatherers; furthermore, the environment provided so much of this resource that hunter-gathers had the ability to leave their tools behind when they migrated. They were not burdened by their tools which only added to their ability to adapt local resources to their needs leading to their success as a species.

Once the population pressure strained the immediate environment’s carrying capacity, humans needed to travel to another place in order to survive. Moving northward and to the west, these humans found the surrounding environment very different and highly adoptable. The circumstances in Europe were hostile because the ability to gather plants was much more limited and the advance of the northern ice sheets only exacerbated the terrible growing conditions. Instead of relying on flora for their main base of nutrition, the Homo sapiens sapiens turned to fauna; however, hunting, being a much less efficient way of retrieving food, led to the urgency of creating longer-lasting tools that required complicated manufacturing techniques. The progress of humankind continued because these humans, evolving to be a bit smarter than before, were then able to use bones, antlers, and ivory of their prey as tool materials, in addition to stone. Spears and harpoons were made to continue the success of hunting and, on the other hand, needles were created to sew clothes for people to survive the cold weather. And thus, this “building” of technologies continues; and yet, it seems that with each innovation it was the environment (whether it be the weather, food, or geography) that demanded technological and cultural change.

These specialized innovations did not just last for the first thousand years of man’s existence; instead, they have carried into the developments of cities and cultures. For an example of the environment’s influence upon man, the modernization and survival of the Mesopotamian Empire is attributed to the arid weather, sparse rain, and scare resource of precious water. This environment necessitated a culture based upon rivers and other water sources. As this technology diffused throughout the Middle East, it allowed a greater population to survive and even led to the further advancement of hydraulic power. The simplest act of trying to survive the arid weather initiated the idea of an irrigation system, enabling him to manipulate this part of the environment and flourish in an otherwise inhospitable area.

This effect can be observed hundreds of years later in which habitat cultured man’s technologies and, therefore, shaped the way humans lived. The Aztec’s manipulations of the natural resources greatly refined the focus of their culture. Evidence supports that approximately four millennia ago the Aztecs coupled the raw latex from the native tree species, Castilla elastica, with another vine’s juice to create a rubber-like material. This rubber was used to produce basketball-sized rubber balls that were used in some form of game. The Aztecs cared so much about this revolutionary “bouncy ball” that they constructed grand and architecturally advanced stadiums, with the arena in the ancient city of Copan being the most famous. Grand technological feats, such as the stadium, signify how sophisticated the South American culture truly was; yet, the Aztec’s would not have elevated the game to such a large extent if it were not for the sap that the environment provided. This civilization founded upon sport was unique in the world. In no other environment, except one that had Castilla elastica to provide rubber could such a society develop in the ways the Aztecs did. In a broader sense, many resources were specific to certain regions. The use and the availability of these resources shaped the world cultures of today, just like the Castilla elastica tree shaped the Aztec’s.




One reason that we overlook the influence of the environment is because we have evolved to neglect much of our environment. Paul Ehrlich, author of Human Nature: Genes, Culture, and the Human Prospect, wrote that that throughout the evolution of apes to humans, we have evolved to regard our surroundings as a backdrop and that only quick and sudden changes will catch our attention. We are only willing to take note of nature around us when there is a demanding problem or sudden eruption. In the modern day, we do not notice the subtle impacts of our actions as they degrade the Earth. Similarly, during the past millions of years we grew to ignore the subtle impacts it made upon us.

If we take a step back and look at early man, the environment necessitated adoptions to survive. Technological advances are surely part of these adoptions; they are not the only ones. Many reasons exist to explain the effects of the natural environment on man. Nature was here before apes became man and nature existed much earlier before man created culture, politics, or economics; it was man’s first and fundamental authority. It still is. Whether the environment has coerced the great shift from ape to man or provided the unique resources for a ball upon which a society was based, it has clearly shaped man into the animal he is today.


Works Cited:

Fukuyama, Francis. “The End of History?” The National Interest. 1989. http://www.wesjones.com/eoh.htm


Huntington, Samuel. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs. 1993 http://www.foreignaffairs.org/19930601faessay5188/samuel-p-huntington/the-clash-of-civilizations.html


Marx, Karl. “The Paris Manuscripts” 1844. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/preface.htm


"The proper study of mankind." The Economist, December 20, 2005, 8.


Ponting, Clive. A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992, 27-29


Teresi, Dick, "Lost Discoveries: The ancient roots of modern science", Simon and Schuster, 2002, ISBN 0-684-83718-8, pp. 325-367, 331.


Ehrlich, Paul. 2000. “Human Natures.” Radio Interview. NPR . Available: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1113131 .


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