What Evidence Exists to Indicate That Prehistoric Humans Had Destructive Impacts on the Environment?

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AIA1000-World Prehistory

Major Essay Question: Option 3
What evidence exists to indicate that prehistoric humans had destructive impacts on the environment?

What evidence exists to indicate that prehistoric humans had destructive impacts on the environment?

In recent years, humans have become increasingly concerned with their effect on the planet and its ecosystems. While it is probably true that our impact on the environment on a global scale has never been as great, the difference to prehistoric times is simply due to our increasingly sophisticated technologies and our ever increasing population. It is tempting to believe that our predecessors lived in complete harmony with nature but evidence conducted in this field shows this not to be the case. From the very beginning of human life, people altered their environment. The key is to differentiate between natural impacts and human impacts on the ecosystem, a problem that has left countless researchers offering strong arguments for and against the idea that prehistoric humans led destructive lives.

Many of the challenges we face today-deforestation, soil erosion, desertification and salinization were problems even in ancient times. Archaeologists have evidence that small hunting and gathering groups in various parts of the world used fires to get rid of unwanted vegetation, to flush out game and to help fertilise the land to allow for new grasses to grow for their game. The earliest probable evidence of fire being used deliberately to clear forests was 60,000 years before present in the Kalambo Falls site in Tanzania (Grove, 1995). An example of the use of fire can be found on our very own shores. It is believed that 50,000 years BP human use of fire had altered vegetation patterns and perhaps even climatic patterns enough to cause extinction of numerous large mammals, called "megafauna" (Harris, D and Hillman, G, eds, 1989). Fire was used for various reasons, forcing animals to flee allowing for easier hunting, creating new grasslands, permitting the open spaces necessary for both ritual walkabouts and easy transportation in densely forested landscapes. In the short term this created an environment favourable to their needs, in the long term it created an arid environment less favourable to humans. This use also created problems with animal species that depended on plant species not favoured by this burning. An example of this is the 80-100 kg flightless bird, Genyornis Newtoni. This bird relied on the plants, which grew at the edge of wooded areas, plants which were more likely destroyed during the fires. Using amino acid racemization, a reliable dating method, on pieces of Genyornis Newtoni eggshell, Glenn Miller and his team discovered that this bird disappeared from the entire continent 50,000 years ago. Another group of scientists led by Richard Roberts demonstrated that multiple species went extinct in a stable climate and within 10,000 years of the arrival of humans. Taken together, these two reports show that the megafaunal extinctions could be linked to human action, primarily burning (Harris, D and Hillman, G ibid.)

The Tigris and Euphrates rives begin in the mountains of Turkey and in ancient times were known as Mesopotamia. By 3000 B.C the city-states of southern Mesopotamia had formed the world's first civilisation, called Sumer. In the early 20th century, archaeologists in Mesopotamia puzzled over the barren desert that had once been a rich and powerful civilisation. Over the centuries, silt carried by the Tigris and Euphrates built up the streambeds. Eventually, the surrounding farmlands were below the level of the rivers. The Sumerians constructed levees to contain the rivers but the irrigated waters went to the fields and collected on the surface. The hot sun evaporated the standing water and left behind layers of salt. The soil also became waterlogged in places and caused the water table to rise, bringing more salt to the surface....
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