Sunday, October 5, 2008

Early Civilizations and the Environment

The first civilizations on this planet had it rough. Like…really rough.

These small groups of people stopped chasing their food from place to place around 3000 B.C.E. (beginning what is known as the “Neolithic era”) and settled down in modern day Iraq to establish permanent homes that would rely upon the environment to insure the survival of the people. Unfortunately for these civilizations, the environment is not a consistently reliable source of survival. In fact, at times it does more to insure death and destruction than health and well being.

These first civilizations settled between two major rivers: the Tigris and Euphrates. Living between these two rivers would allow for inhabitants of the civilizations access to one of the fundamental benefits presented by the natural environment: water. Of course, the people of this civilization had to find ways to get that water to the central farms that were developing, as the movement from hunting and gathering to fixed locations required people to use the available land to plant and grow food. Irrigation was born. Civilization as a whole grew tremendously as people were able to successfully grow food for both themselves and their neighbors.

Of course, living between two major rivers does have its down side. Heavy rains at any given time would flood the rivers, potentially destroying the farms and/or killing a whole bunch of people. The people of the Neolithic era had to be constantly aware of the potential for disaster. Even more unfortunately for them, there was little they could do to prepare.

A similar catch-21 developed when the first civilizations realized the benefits of domesticating animals. Possessing and maintaining farm animals was a great way to help sustain early civilizations, as these animals (both living and recently deceased) could provide a lot of different resources for humans: eggs, meat and clothing are but three tremendous benefits of having animals around. But, like the dangers associated with living near rivers, domesticating animals also brought with it some danger. These animals carried a number of diseases for which humans had no immunities. Being in constant contact with these animals would eventually lead to the deaths of a number of people in these early civilizations, as they caught and passed on the viruses and diseases carried by the animals.

The inhabitants of the first river valley civilizations had to constantly be aware of their relationship to their environment, as any sudden change in conditions could literally mean the end of their society. With each innovation that would eventually lead to tremendous growth for the world as a whole, there was inevitably a cost that would have to be paid by some members of society. And that cost usually involved a level of give-and-take between mankind and his environment. Unfortunately for the people of the Neolithic time period, the “take” tended to be a lot more severe (and happen more often) than the “give.”

Most importantly, however, it is important to understand that, from even this early time period, there was an unmistakable connection between mankind and his environment. When the environment was cooperative, the early civilizations thrived. When the environment was uncooperative, civilization stagnated.