Humans as Hunter-Gatherers

Humans as Hunter-Gatherers

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-4586-8.ch005


The development of human separation from the environment is outlined beginning with our immediate ancestor Homo erectus. This ancestor made tools complex enough to save and store, thus creating a human space distinct from the rest of nature. Homo erectus later tamed fire and built temporary shelters, again adding to a human environment distinct from nature. When Homo sapiens, our species, appeared, they adopted additional practices that separated them from the rest of nature. They made and wore clothing, carried out ceremonial burials, began making representations, and exterminated nearly all animals larger than themselves.
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In the past four chapters, a number of factors emerged which contribute to humanity’s conflicts with nature: Attitudes of human superiority and human exceptionalism; modern technology and its regarding nature as nothing but resource; and humans as beings that do not really belong to this world. We could try to return to the time before some of these factors came into play and call the previous state, the solution. There are problems with this approach. In some ways, for-profit corporations are currently the most serious threat to life on this planet. Yet, without the power and aims of modern technology they would probably not be that much of a threat. So one might consider eliminating the modern technology that powers them. This may not be a good idea for a number of reasons. It is not just a matter of eliminating a few gadgets. Our entire economy is technology-dependent and as a result has also become globalized. Our food supply is dependent on the workings of globalized commerce. Modern technology was an addition to previously existing civilization. But even the people of pre-modern civilizations depended for their survival on complex institutionalized food production. And when those institutions collapse, most people die. When the classic Maya civilization in what is now Honduras collapsed, population went from a conservative estimate of 3 million people down to about 30,000 (Diamond 2005, p. 175).

Also, an earlier state which in itself does not cause ecological problems, may contain the basis for a later state which does cause problems. For example, as Heidegger (1955) saw, modern science contained within itself the point of view of modern technology. Thus to eliminate modern technology we would have to eliminate science. And eliminating science would eliminate almost all ability to deal with ecological problems. (Prescientific civilization had already produced ecological problems.) Reverting to civilization before science and modern technology is not an answer either. As Joseph Tainter has documented, all previous civilizations have collapsed. Tainter believes that technology has prevented the collapse of the current civilization (1988). But we already have sufficient evidence that technology both helps and hinders. So technology may not be able to prevent the collapse of our civilization.

Some look further back to pastoral life or to a hunter-gatherer existence. People living these lives may seem to have been more in harmony with nature than us civilized types. There is certainly some truth to this, because hunter-gatherers have to think of themselves as part of the ecosystem. If they fail to understand their relation to the ecosystem, they cease to exist. Yet we also know that wherever human hunter-gatherers have appeared, all large animals (megafauna) usually go extinct quickly. So much for a more spiritual relation to the environment. There is abundant evidence for human-caused megafauna extinctions going back at least 60,000 years (Leakey 1995).

Yet human beings (or at least their ancestors) were not always apart from and above the environment. At some point, our ancestors were animals among other animals. Always, to be sure, intelligent and capable animals, but during their lifetimes poor candidates for masters of the universe or even the ecosystem. This part of this book, Section 2, “The Origins of Technology and Human Superiority,” will explore how the transition took place from animal in the ecosystem to imperfect but overconfident master of the ecosystem. Hopefully, this procedure will lead us to a usable diagnosis of what may be leading humanity to destroy itself. And without an adequate account of how we came to be as powerful and as destructive as we are, proposed remedies for our situation are likely not to help much.

Trying to picture what it was like to be a human in the various earlier periods is not easy. As soon as we leave written history, evidence of attitudes and inner life is inferential. Yet although there is no direct evidence of attitudes of human superiority in prehistory, there are ample physical traces demonstrating the growing separation of humans from the rest of nature. For example, when humans began wearing clothing, they were no longer an animal amongst animals. Various kinds of separation from the ecosystem together with humanity’s greater physical intelligence and power would surely be enough eventually to engender attitudes of human superiority to the rest of nature.

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