An excerpt from the Passionate Earth: The Evolution of Our Relationship with the Natural World by John Del Signore
Homo erectus was the beginning of the development of the more human-like species that evolved into what we have become today. There are many classifications for early hominids based upon their ancestry and developmental traits, the last of which are known as Homo sapiens or modern humans. Anatomically modern humans have existed for about 200,000 years and behavioral modernity began approximately 50,000 years ago.
The arrival of Homo erectus marked a significant advance in the ability of a species to interact with its environment. They were primarily hunters and gatherers that had learned how to make and use stone tools and utilize fire. They did not yet have a well-developed language but did have a means of communication that was more sophisticated than that of chimpanzees, bonobos or other primates.
When their ability to walk upright on two legs developed, the elevated perspective allowed a wider and farther view of the terrain and freed up their hands to function as tools. Advantages included better navigation, advance notice of danger and the ability to carry, throw, climb, hold, grasp, pull, pound, manipulate and build things such as tools and primitive shelters. Gathering food and other resources became easier and more efficient. Making weapons was not a primary development to kill animals as has been previously thought. Most human endeavors centered around gathering and processing plants and seeds for nutrition and other needs.
The upright posture also had social implications. It allowed for more physical intimate contact among individuals, as their limbs were now free to hold and embrace each other more readily. This also allowed mothers to be more intimate with their children and to provide more nurturance and affection. This promoted positive social relationships, collaboration and cooperation.
Men and women shared responsibilities, maintained equality in status and functioned in a collaborative manner. Children were parented by any or all of the adults and lineage issues were considered unimportant. Sexual behavior was typically non-monogamous, open-ended and served to bond all members of the tribe, thereby fulfilling vital intimacy needs.
Hunters and gatherers lived in close proximity to the land and felt connected to their habitat. The Earth’s ecosystems in the semi-tropical and tropical regions where humanity evolved were abundant in flora and fauna and made the hunter and gatherer lifestyle viable.
The common view of their early lifestyles was that it was unpleasant, dangerous and short but more recent research has found evidence that this is not necessarily so. Hunting was indeed dangerous if large mammals were sought but the kill rate was quite low at about ten percent. Foraging for fruits, nuts, seeds and plants was the principal diet that provided more than adequate nutritional value and was about a third higher in protein than our modern diets. It has been estimated that only several days a week were devoted to subsistence activities and that much time was spent in leisurely and social pursuits, certainly more than is customary in modern society. Because resources were plentiful and populations were small, competition for available resources was extremely low or non-existent. Thus, we find little or no evidence of pilfering, hoarding or warfare. Aggressive behavior became prevalent only after human populations increased greatly in number, developed much larger settlements than tribes and became decidedly agricultural.
We also find little or no evidence of aggressive or warlike behavior as an intrinsic part of human nature and development. Skeletal remains show few signs of broken or damaged bones from spears, knives or stones. It is believed that humans were overall peaceful creatures that lived egalitarian, cooperative and collaborative lives from about 3.5 million years ago to about 10,000 years ago. Settlement and the shift to agriculture changed this disposition to one that became patriarchal and aggressive and has persisted to this day.
Early humans lived in small tribes of about 25-50 individuals. They were nomadic and literally followed their food supply as it migrated, such as with herds of large animals or followed the progression of ripening plants, fruits, nuts and seeds. Given the abundance of natural resources and the process of learning through experience with their environment, hominids were able to, over time, adapt to habitats with more fluctuations in climate and topography and slowly distributed their numbers throughout the planet’s biomes and ecosystems. The foraging way of life tied the first hominids to their surroundings in an intimate and instinctual manner that persisted successfully for a very long time.
Life for early hominids also presented some interesting challenges. Hunting for food involved confrontations with many dangerous animals and survival depended upon the ability to find adequate food and shelter. The environment presented other dangers as well. The Earth was in a tumultuous stage of development and natural catastrophes were ever present. These included, cosmic events, meteors, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, cyclones, floods, drought, fire, tornadoes, hurricanes, violent thunderstorms, tsunamis, disease, famine and possibly other disasters we are unaware of. These events were extremely frightening and have been viewed by some anthropologists and psychologists as the first traumatic events to influence the early psyche. It has even been suggested that this was the beginning of what we now refer to as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Hominids felt insignificant and vulnerable in their perplexing world and searched for ways to reduce their traumatic experiences and increase their security.
Eisler, Riane. The Chalice and the Blade, Memories of a Lost Age, Harper San Francisco, pages 59-77.
Ryan, Christopher and Jethra, Cacilda. Sex at Dawn, The Never-Ending Battle Over Prehistoric War. Harper Perennial, 2010, pages 182-199.
Ponting, Clive. A Green History of the World, Ninety-nine Per Cent of Human History. 1991, St Martin’s Press, NY, pages 18-36.
French, Marilyn. Beyond Power: On Women, Men and Morals. Chapter One: The Long View Back, 1985, Belles-Lettres, Inc, Published by Summit Books, pages 25-49.
Edited by Roszak, Theodore, Gomes, Mary E. and. Kanner, Allen D. Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth Healing the Mind, The Psychopathology of the Human-Nature Relationship, Sierra Club Books, 1995, pages 6-63.