Humans have proven themselves to be stronger than their environment on multiple occasions shown in the rise of early civilization. Through agriculture, terraforming, trade and animal husbandry humans have been able to shape the environment to become more hospitable to life. We will go over all of these aspects as well as go into detail on specific civilizations and how they overcame problems localized in their areas.
Environment can be classified as many things, particularly flora and fauna. As seen in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, the appearance and taste of modern foods can be traced back to human influences on once natural plant life. Early peoples would seek out the most attractive looking foods for consumption. This led to the propagation of foods that were more desirable to humans. They were sweeter, larger and often grew faster than other plant species. Through a slow process these plants eventually became domesticated as humans started to settle down and move towards a more sedentary, agricultural based lifestyle.
Another prime example of humans overcoming the environment would be the use of irrigation. Through this process they are able to change previously unfarmable land into useable soil to grow multiple products. Norte Chico is a good example of this with their “three sisters”. They cleverly used three different types of plants in a symbiotic relationship they created to further optimize crop yields. However the influence of nature is not limited to plants but also the domestication of animals.
Animal husbandry is a skill that is traced back to the earliest of civilizations. As groups of people settled down, they domesticated animals and began herding to increase food supply as well as increase labor productions. Other animals who are now common house pets such as dogs and cats were also domesticated by humans. Cats were primarily used to kill rodents as civilizations started to store large amounts of grain. Animals like oxen were used to pull ploughs to help till the soil and were breed to be strong and sturdy. As civilization advanced the decisions of breeding traits became more deliberate. Ultimately humans have dramatically altered the natural progression of many flora and fauna and have thus demonstrated their control over nature. However, in some cases the resources required to survive are not immediately available so instead humans turned to trade to fill the gaps.
The rise of trade networks is one of the distinct achievements of humanity in response to the environment. The existence of these networks is due to the breeding of caravan animals and rise of sea faring vessels to help transport goods and thus allowed the limitations of civilizations to be overcome. Now they were not limited to what was available to them in their immediate surroundings but instead are able to obtain goods from all over to further stimulate the growth of their civilizations. “The Phoenician cities specialized in naval power and maritime trade to a much greater extent than did the Greek Cities. Phoenician cities, like later Italian city-states, had little capacity to produce their own agricultural goods. Rather, they relied on their ability to purchase food in exchange for goods they that they traded.”1 Here in lies the greatest benefit from the rise of the trade network. Societies could exist in areas that were mostly barren when it came to critical resources. Instead they could rely on being a trade hub to bring food and materials allowing them to grow despite the environmental handicap.
Trade not only helped those who were unable to produce their own food but also allowed large empires like China to add surplus to their food stocks allowing them to further expand the frontier. “Once trade began, it grew by expanding to other goods, and it led to general prosperity. It also led to some expansion of grain production and trade in order to feed the various officials and armies sent to the western borders…”2 Surplus food is critical to many civilizations due to warfare. When large armies are sent out to wage war, plundering conquered lands may not always be enough; supply caravans are a critical part of the process as well as having large amounts of food surplus when besieging large cities. All of this became possible as civilizations began to trade valuable materials in exchange for food.
The development and maintenance of the most famous trade network, the Silk Road, was done by the Mongols. Through the Pax Mongolica they created a safety that was unprecedented on the Silk Road. Merchants could travel unmolested allowing trade to flourish. These people of the steppe were able to rise to power due to their utilizing their limited resources to overcome the barren terrain that surrounded them. The Mongols’ ability to ride for many days despite the lack of water around them came from their use of horses. “Marco Polo reported, perhaps with some exaggeration, that a horseman could, by nourishing himself on his horse’s blood, ‘ride quite ten days’ marches without eating any cooked food and without lighting a fire.”3 Another staple of the Mongolian diet, due to their lack of agricultural skills and infertile environment, was mare’s milk. The use of their horses milk to create cheese, yogurt, and their most important drink fermented mare’s milk. “If the horse dies, I die; if it lives, I survive.”4 This very much encapsulates the Mongol culture as well as drives home how critical their horses were to overcoming their environment.
Counter arguments to humans control over the environment are sometimes made with regards to shift in weather patterns upsetting the certain civilizations. Yes, weather shifts have caused humans to struggle however they have proven their ability to overcome this and much more to shape the environment to their needs. With the idea of unfavorable lands, humans have been able to adjust the land to their needs. As discussed in The The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History, “Wherever humans arrived they altered landscapes by their activities, especially by their use of fire.”5Slash and burn techniques were critical to creating useable farmland. Along with this cold conditions did not necessarily mean that humans were unable to survive without food stores. Inuit peoples in the Arctic coastlines were able to thrive due to their whaling techniques. “Whale meat was preserved by freezing and the frozen meat was stored underground”, and “Whale blubber yielded oil for cooking and for lamps that made the winter darkness tolerable.”6 Continuing on to the topic of nature’s destructive force, humans were capable of handling this as well.
Although flooding may have destroyed early civilizations there did exists other ones in Asia that were able to control the floods and dam rivers to limit the damage. In ancient Yao (2297 B.C.) channels and canals were dug to drain the floods.7 Furthermore, yes, as humans moved to a sedentary lifestyle diseases, such as plague, started to become rampant, however populations that survived passed down their traits to offspring. This would propagate immunity as time would go on and then herd immunity would mitigate the destruction caused by such things. It may appear at first glance the immediate destruction caused by the environment would indicate human’s lack of control, but given time they were able to quickly tame and overcome the obstacles.
In conclusion, it is clear that humans control their environment in a very direct manner. By influencing the growth of flora and fauna they are able to create stable food and labor sources. If resources are not immediately they branch out through trade to fill in the holes of their resource network. Weather, although often an obstacle, can be overcome by changing the very terrain they live on to circumvent issues such as flooding and drought.
1. Thomas D. Hall, Rise and Demise: Comparing World-Systems, Colorado: Westview Press, 1997, 164
2. Thomas D. Hal, 165
3. Morris Rossabi, “All the Khan’s Horses”, The Mongols in World History, (1994): 2
4. Morris Rossabi, “All the Khan’s Horses”, The Mongols in World History, (1994): 2
5. J.R. McNeill and William H. McNeill, The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History (New York: W.W. Norton Company, 2003), 19.
6. McNeill and McNeill, 21.
7. Charles Gould, Mythical Monsters, http://www.sacred-texts.com/earth/mm/mm07.htm