Humans and the Environment: Prehistoric times

Human beings, like every other living organism, has a relationship with its surrounding environment. This relationship began the moment our species evolved and has been a dynamic relationship ever since. We have interacted with the environment in several ways spread over centuries, and it is important to understand this relationship before we understand the situation today (isn’t that why we study history anyway?).

There is an established field of science called environmental history that deals with the study of this relationship. It is a study focused on (1) how nature has naturally changed since humans evolved (2) how humans have interacted with nature and (3) how nature, in turn, has interacted with us. In fact, the study of environmental history up until the recent past has only focused on the last 100-1000 years. This is but minuscule in our total 2 million years on Earth. In light of this, a global research has been established called Integrated History and the future Of People on Earth (IHOPE) that focuses on-

i) Map the integrated record of biophysical and human system change on the Earth over the last several thousand millennia, with higher temporal and spatial resolution in the last 1000 and the last 100 years.
ii) Understand the socio-ecological dynamics of human history by testing human-environment system models against the integrated history.
iii) Based on these historical insights, develop credible options for the future of humanity (Costanza et al 2007)

While the relationship between humans and nature was simple in the beginning (like any other organism), it has become increasingly complex with every development in the human civilization. The inter-connected world and the development of socio-economic cultures over history have further increased complexity in this relationship. But what is important to understand in this relationship is this: Every human social development has been a response to a factor in the environment. It is only in the last 100 years that the environment has begun to respond to activities in human societies. I will duly illustrate this.

The earliest humans lived in constant contact with the environment. They were hunter-gatherers and depended on their surroundings for everything; food, shelter, water. They had no control over where and how they got their needs, they merely responded to what the environment threw at that.

The first example of humans having an impact on the environment is the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago. It is popularly seen as the event that changed the course of human history. What brought about this change? It is possible that someday, frustrated with the lack of food, a human would have thrown a seed onto the ground and left. He may have returned to this place a few weeks later to see that the seed had grown into a plant. He would have realized that he had caused this. Further experiments would have led him and his friends to stumble upon the idea that they can grow their own food. Notice that this first major effect of humans on the environment was a response to the environment having no food for them.

Image results for early agriculture

It was the first time humans disturbed an ecosystem; they cleared patches of forest and began to grow more food than they could possibly eat. This eventually led to the development of the division of labor and primitive economics in the society.

Further developments also came in the wake of an environmental impulse. For example, it is the event of a severe drought that destroyed all crops, that could have given humans the impetus to develop large-scale irrigation. This brings us the second agricultural related influence of humans on the environment: we now started diverting water resources for our personal needs. 

Human-nature interactions had much the same dynamics by 2000 B.C as today; the scale in technology and extent differs.

As humans realized that they can control more resources than they possibly needed, naturally problems began to arise. In 6000 B.C, deforestation led to the collapse of communities in Israel and Jordan (Grove, 1995). Similarly, soil erosion became a cause for the collapse of Central American city-states in 1500 B.C.

As civilizations grew, this relationship entered a new stage. The stage of environmental regulations. 2700 B.C saw some of the first laws protecting remaining forests in Ur, Mesopotamia (Grove, 1995). Commercial growth of forests has been reported in parts of Egypt and South India as well. Regulations also developed over the use of water and land for agriculture between adjoining cities and kingdoms. The is the other example of human intervention in the environment: environmental aspects began to come under the jurisdiction of human activities. It began to gain commercial value.

Image results for Water Works

The 3rd World War will be fought for water; many say. If this happens (God forbid), it will not be the first war for water. As the resources gained commercial and well as life value, disputes began to arise between societies sharing them. A Karnataka-Tamil Nadu Water dispute-type situation arose in the 2500 B.C in Mesopotamia, when the first Water War was fought over the sharing of water from a common canal.

As you can see, life in prehistoric times was not all that different from today. Human-nature interactions had much the same dynamics by 2000 B.C as today; the scale in technology and extent differs. The dynamics only intensified in coming centuries, which I will touch on in my next post on The Muse Within.

Until then!



  1. Environmental History Timeline.
  2. Sustainability or Collapse: What Can We Learn from Integrating the History of Humans and the Rest of Nature?, Robert Costanza, Lisa Graumlich, Will Steffen, Carole Crumley, John Dearing, Kathy Hibbard, Rik Leemans, Charles Redman and David Schimel, Ambio Vol. 36, No. 7, November 2007
  5. Feature image –

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