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In the very beginning of human history, there was no clear separation between man and nature. Early humans’ way of living was in unison with their environment and it is likely that it was pleasurable as well. Humans supported themselves by hunting and gathering and due to their small population size and density, they were able to sustain themselves without too much effort. Thomas Hobbes claims that the life of early humans was “nasty, brutish and short”, but modern theories reject such viewpoint (Ponting, p.19).
Unfortunately, there is little direct evidence that shows what daily human life was like hundreds of years ago. Therefore, anthropologists and historians use studies on African tribes and Aborigines to build theories about the customs of early humans. Of course, such an extrapolation is not very reliable, but it is as close as one can get to the truth.
It would not be too flattering for early humans to claim that they had a very modest and conscientious way of life. The tropical climate was very benign toward all forms of life, so humans did not have to preoccupy themselves with storage or conservation of food. Fresh plants were available and plentiful all year round, so obtaining food was not the main human concern. Judging from the diet of the bushmen in Africa, early humans probably had more nutritious and balanced meals than modern humans. As Ponting points out in his book, Green History of the World, the African bushmen consume the nuts of the mongongo tree, which adequately meet their nutritious and energy needs. Since the mongongo nuts are abundant and easy to gather, the bushmen have a steady source of food which they can rely on for subsistence.
It can be concluded that early humans followed a similar pattern of behavior. They used gathering of plant material as main food source, because hunting was much more difficult and less efficient. According to Ponting, one out of ten attempts to kill an animal was successful, therefore hunting was used solely to complement the fresh provisions. Since early humans were completely dependent on their environment for survival, they carefully used the available resources without overstressing them. They took from nature as much as they needed, not only to protect it, but also to save time. Bushmen value food and leisure time equally, that’s why it is fair to suppose that early humans harvested only as much as they could consume, so that they can enjoy the rest of their time.
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Early humans did not lead a sedentary way of life judging from the fact “the Gidjingali Aborigenes of Northern Australia have a clear seasonal round of varying exploitation” (Ponting, p.22). They moved several times a year within short distance, adjusting to the location of the plants that were ripe or in season. Such a behavior suggests that early humans had a deep and detailed knowledge of their natural surroundings. It was through careful observation that they were able to adapt to the environment. Adjusting their needs to what is available helped them survive without too much effort or inconvenience. Ponting concludes that “these groups lived in close harmony with the environment and did minimal damage to natural ecosystems” (p.32).
Another theory about early humans, which contradicts the above statement by Ponting, is put forward by geologist Gilford Miller from the University of Colorado. He believes that the activities of early humans resulted in an irreversible climactic and ecological change in Australia. While studying 50,000 years old sediments in Wolf Creek Crater in Western Australia, Miller encountered fossils from extinct megafauna. His data shows that large marsupials and lizards inhabited Australia before humans conquered the continent. The geologist claims that it was humans that drove these large animals to extinction. He believes that early humans set fires which destroyed most of the vegetation in Australia and doomed the existing fauna to starvation. Reduction of vegetation affected rainfall patterns as well. Miller concludes that early humans’ activity caused a negative cascade effect on the environment which was responsible for the extinction of large mammals.
Miller’s theory is not very well substantiated. The fact that two events happen at the same time does not necessarily mean that one is a result of the other. There is no direct evidence to prove that the appearance of humans caused the disappearance of the megafauna, besides the fact that they take place in approximately the same time. Miller is “speculating” that early humans set fires deliberately, thus altering the vegetation and depriving the large mammals of food. There is no clear evidence why and how humans set fires. Besides that, it is unlikely that a small number of settlers would set so many fires as to affect the vegetation of such big piece of land as Australia.
Given the above hypotheses, the relationship between early humans and their environment is controversial. On one hand, early humans did not exploit more resources than they could use, so they were preserving nature. On the other hand, it is inevitable that their actions had some kind of impact on the environment, but not to the extent to which Miller believes. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle, but it is hard to find the middle in piles of dust.
Ponting, Clive. 1992. A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations. St. Martin's Press: New York.