The Romanticizing of hunter-gather peoples as being “a nonfactor in environmental change…[for] their technology was insufficient to cause alteration”(Williams 2003:14) is now facing great opposition. Many situate early humans and their technologies in opposition to nature, establishing any human derived effect as “unnatural” and framing technology as human means of exploiting the environment (Ponting 1993:20). Williams asserts that these early peoples where using technology to radically alter their habitats—which they are framed in opposition to rather than as an integral component of: “Even before the climate, vegetation, and landscape had achieved their modern character, humans were at odds with nature, changing it, manipulating it and attempting to tame it” (2003:14, emphasis added). Most draw their evidence by charting environmental changes and correlating them to specific human activities. The rapid extinction of large mammals during the late Paleolithic and early Mesolithic, for example, is speculated to be a result of forest modification by means of fire and the resulting increased vulnerability of large game (Williams 2003:20). It is nonsensical, however, to expect to find zero ecological evidence of humans’ presence. Rather than deeming any humans whose presence can be detected in nature antagonistic to their environments, a distinction must be made between peoples who, while making changes to their habitat, eventually achieved a static way of living and those who did not. Humans’ ability to achieve stable participation in an ecosystem is dependent first and foremost on the phenomena or culture that informs their behavior. The use of what we classify ‘technology,’ does not necessarily render humans opposed to nature; it can, however, drastically alter peoples world-views, changing their culture and accordingly, their behavior and interactions with their habitat.
Upon the introduction of a species (or any new agent) to an ecosystem, changes will take place at multiple levels; eventually either a balance will be re-achieved and a revised ecosystem will emerge, or if the factor cannot be integrated effectively, additional alterations will ensue until equilibrium is reached. At the resting point of a system, all agents are linked in a network of interdependencies. Each element plays a unique role—its existence is dependent on others, while others’ existences are dependent upon it. It is odd, then, that skeptics of hunter-gathers ecological sense expect to find zero-trace of their presence. That is not to say, however, that early humans were incapable of erroneous engagement with their environments. Such groups, however, would have met a fatal fate. And so at this point, amongst hunter-gathers, erroneous ecosystem engagement was naturally selected against.
Most hunter-gathers were and are able to properly integrate into their ecosystems because their actions and behavior were (and are) guided by a culture that is indistinguishable from their natural habitat, not a separate humanly derived culture. In the Western tradition, culture and nature are fundamentally dichotomized, the former apprehending the latter within the human mind. Culture provides a framework of meanings that establish norms and inform behavior when interacting with the world:
…when people act towards these objects [phenomena from their physical surroundings], or with them on mind, their actions respond to the ways they are already appropriated, categorized or valorized in terms of a particular, pre-existent design. (Ingold 2000:40)
Anthropologist Tim Ingold argues, however, that to many hunter-gather communities, this Western dichotomy does not exist and what informs behavior is nothing other than the environment they inhabit:
In what follows I shall argue that hunter-gathers do not, as a rule, approach their environment as an external world of nature that has to be ‘grasped’ conceptually and appropriated symbolically within the terms of an imposed cultural design, as a precondition for effective action. (Ingold 2000:42)
Their means of survival was an irremovable involvement in their ecosystems, making the habitats they sought to participate in, the only relevant informant of life. Rather than imagine a culture, or set of ideas and morals, and then embed them into their environment, these peoples’ actions and ways of life are actually informed by their habitats themselves. For example, the Mbuti Pygmies if the Ituri Forest “…recognize their dependence on the forest that surrounds them by referring to it as ‘Father’ or ‘Mother’” (Turnball 1965:19 cited in Ingold 2000:43). The traditional anthropological understanding of this observation is “that these key metaphors enable them to make sense of their environment, and guide their actions within it” (Bird-David 1992:31 1990:190 cited in Ingold 2000:44). Ingold argues that this understanding is a projection of the Western dualistic understanding of human society and nature:
But when the hunter-gatherer addresses the forest as his or her parent… on what grounds can we claim the usage is metaphorical? This evidently is not an interpretation that the people would make themselves. [Underwriting this interpretation]…is an assumed separation between two domains: the domain of human persons and social relations…and the domain of the non-human environment… relations with which are understood by drawing, for analogy, on those intrinsic to the first domain. (Ingold 2000:44)
The Mbuti Pygmies do extrapolate a human social dynamic onto a natural phenomenon, rather, in their world-view both human and forest nurture are equal expressions of the same parenting. It was precisely this nondichotomized world-view that allowed the early hunter-gathers to live in virtual stasis, even with technologies, from approximately 500,000 b.p. to 10,000 b.p. It was not because they coincidentally derived a culture that kept them in ecological balance, but because their culture was ecological balance.
Agriculture drastically undermined such a singular world-view, providing the farmer with a perceived empowerment and independence that perceptually removed him from the integrated ecosystem and shifted his focus to new—anthropocentric—life informing elements. Many of the sudden changes that began to take place in the wakes of the advent of agriculture express this psychological change. Emerging around 8500 years b.p., walled towns such as Jericho are physical evidence of mans ostracism from interdependent systems (Ponting 1993:46). Establishing not only a physical boundary, but also a barrier between nature and society demonstrates that nature had transitioned from a sustenance providing ‘parent’ to a threat to survival. Humans’ ability to survive became entirely dependent on the communities ability to exert power in order to reorder nature into an ecosystem with only two interdependent agents—man and crop:
Man can use his energy output to master and utilize other forms of energy. The more successful he does so, the more he acquires control over his environment and achieves goals other than those strictly related to animal existence. (Cipolla 1978:37)
Attunement to ones natural habitat now lost its relevance to the informing of human behavior. The dynamics of the human community became the relevant influencing factor, for it was the success of this community to cooperatively exert force upon an ‘otherized’ nature that yielded success. A schema for such behavior could no longer be found within the very system they were trying to exploit; humans looked elsewhere—to themselves. Laws, ownership and social order, accordingly emerged at this time (Ponting 1993:52). They provided humans a social culture to follow, replacing their now obsolete ecological guidance.
The grave distinction between pre and post agricultural peoples should not be overlooked when considering the history and nature of technology. Influenced by our own cultural framing (a post agricultural one) many, such as Cipolla, Ponting and Williams, project an understanding of technology onto the tools of hunter-gatherers that is drastically different than the hunter-gathers’ own comprehension of it, and to them, its reality. Ponting’s explanation of archeological methods for analyzing early hunter-gather stone tools unintentionally demonstrates the hegemony of the civilized west’s framing of technology: “This [method] emphasizes trying to understand… what tools were made to do, what activities were carried out at the different sires, [and] how human groups exploited their environment in different ways…” (Ponting 1993:20). In a world-view where man is but one of many agents participating in an interdependent ecosystem there is no conceptual room for exploitation. As aforementioned, survival was measured by successful integration, thus life and behavior were guided by an attunement to the ecosystem and the other co-inhabitants. These elements would have offered no inspiration to ‘exploit,’ as exploitation does not yield integration. So while early hunter-gathers wielded various technologies, they were mechanisms that remained ecologically guided, along with every other element of their lives. We must then consider that it was not until the emergence of agriculture that technology acquired its current reality; rather than mechanisms to assist and enhance a sustaining participation and engagement within the habitat, they became tools with which to dominate, reorganize and exploit nature.
Cipolla, Carlo M.. “The Economic History of World Population” Boston: Penguin (Non-Classics), 1962.
Ingold, Tim. “Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill” New York: Routledge, 2000.
Locay, Luis. “From Hunting and Gathering to Agriculture” Economic Development and Cultural Change, Vol. 37, No. 4. (Jul., 1989), pp. 737-756.
Ponting, Clive. “A New Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations” Boston: Penguin (Non-Classics), 2007.
Williams, Michael, "Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis" (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2003)
Send message to Swarthmore College Environmental Studies
last updated 2/12/08webmaster