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Monkeying around in the family tree

By Colin Samundsett - posted Wednesday, 9 November 2005

“An uncivilized lot”. That’s our family.

Well, it certainly applied when we all lived in small groups, and ate partly-singed meat from freshly-killed animals after the carcasses had been thrown onto a fire; when we topped-up meals with gathered fruit and vegetable matter; skinned animals to make up for the fur we didn’t have to keep us warm: a time when we all had fleas and lice.

But, there was always the tenderness of children’s presence. Most often, they were just a sprinkling - only so many could be catered for. Mothers would have an infant or child hanging on the nipple almost continuously. That lowered their fertility. And if new births placed too much pressure upon resources, well, infanticide was common.


In the intervals when those times were good, resources enabled population build-up. And that would, when the pressure of numbers did eventually impact upon resources, provide a cause for inter-tribal warfare. During times of chronic hardship, warlike intrusions onto neighbouring territory might have been deemed to be necessary. The rationality for warfare could be tailored for any occasion. As it always has been. Not only for us, but also for our socially-oriented relatives of predatory tendency and possessing a backbone.

Such were “normal” times for Homo sapiens: long, long, years during which our family tree established its roots. They occupy the bulk of our time on earth as a species. And the people then are us now - we are one. The apparent differences are, in reality, no more than tissue-thin veneers providing a modern façade.

The long span of “normal” times was disrupted a mere ten thousand years ago. Then, we grasped the opportunities provided by climate change. It was one towards the benign from a human viewpoint. And, with the advent of agriculture, our family tree started blossoming. Never before, could food be accessed in such quantity with such reliability for so much of the time. Nutritional value might have slipped, but greater human numbers could be, and were, brought into the world - and mostly survived. Food production, storage and distribution became organised, fostering the development of economic systems. No longer need a human of artistic flair feel guilty about sneaking off from his hunting duties to render a cave wall with ochre in representation of an auroch. Now, he could trade: “Provide me with food for a week, and I will paint you a dozen horses; brush up an elk for free.”

With time for tinkering, technology gathered speed. People with an inventive bent had always been with us, and now they were let off the leash. Within a few thousand years pottery took a turn for the better. Some up-market thinker got flash with copper implements. Then a smart aleck, thinking copper nice but limited, caught onto combining it with tin and smelting: bronzed warriors appeared. Just a thousand or so more years later, an Armenian blacksmith fabricated iron. If he did not know what to do with that, the Hittites did. Since they started using iron to cull their neighbours, we have had an oscillating interplay of minds regarding the relevant worth of swords and ploughshares. Sadly, with the passage of 4,000 years, a conversion rate has yet to be established.

While we were doing these things, we developed further our rapport with certain animals. Goats, sheep and cattle provided protein; horses - transport; cats, dogs, birds, monkeys - companionship; rodents - considerable irritation. We probably had more fleas and bugs than ever before.

Our close and crowded inter-human associations, and almost continuous familiarity with those animal cousins, gave us extra. Old diseases became more common, and new ones developed across species boundaries from the animals including smallpox, tuberculosis, plagues and a raft of other population inhibitors. Human aggregations became large enough to support the development and continuance of diseases: both those developed within the human frame and from zoonosis - where infection crosses species boundaries.


For ten millennia until 1800 human population oscillated like a vibrating string. But the vibrations had steadily increasing amplitude. Swinging between enhanced agriculture and technology on the one hand and disease, warfare and natural or nutritional disaster on the other, population increase progressed slowly. Each year, on average overall, the earth’s resources suffered from predation by an extra 800 human beings, until the start of the industrial age. Then our family tree reached full maturity - moving through the processes of flowering, fruiting and into signs of decay.

Since 1800 technology, revolutionised, has escalated and continues to do so. But its gargantuan ability to convert natural resources into the waste products of humanity has been possible only due to cheap, conveniently packaged energy from fossil fuel. The slow pace of animal power has long been abandoned in the developed world; and its companion, human slavery, been officially outlawed.

In the last 200 years, turbo-charged on fossil fuel, technology has rocketed us to the most comfortable perch we have ever had on the family tree. Never before have we been able to sieve the oceans so thoroughly for fish, or squeeze the earth’s fertility so hard for agriculture. Never before have so many lived so bountifully. In the manner of other socially-oriented mammals with the opportunity, we have bred up. But, in contrast to those, we have been able to interfere with the rate of dying - and, especially in the last half-century, spectacularly so.

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About the Author

Colin Samundsett has particular interests in social and environmental interaction, the spirituality of being part of a landscape upon which we depend as so intuitively described by Dr Alan Newsome in Ecomythology of the Red Kangaroo.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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