The History of Life: Nature versus Humanity

Before there was a literate, and philosophical, historical record, humans existed at least some 80,000 years. Around 12,500 years ago in the region surrounding Anatolia in modern Turkey, agriculture slowly began (the Neolithic Revolution, which spread across Eurasia over a period of some five thousand years or more), at first with the domestication of sheep, pigs and cattle, and then crops. This raises two questions:

  1. What was the default view of life by pre-agrarian humans? Did they see themselves as special among living things?

  2. What changes did the rise of agriculture bring about?

Now we have no record of unrecorded events, obviously, so we have to try to reconstruct the past by reference to the present, and this is, to put it mildly, difficult. Non-agrarian societies are known by anthropologists as “foraging” societies (they used to be called “hunter-gatherer” societies, but there was a clear gender bias in this – in fact the amount of food gotten through hunting is, in such societies we can observe, minimal compared to the gathering), and while we have studies of some such societies in the past couple of centuries, we have only physical remains of the pre-agrarian Indo-Europeans, and so we do not know much of what they thought. Anthropology is rife with projection onto the past to serve the agendas and prejudices of the present.

Consequently, we only have speculation, which frees me to speculate.

In the foraging societies we know today, living things are rarely distinguished from human beings. In some cases, members of other species are considered honorary humans for totemic (tribal symbolic) reasons. In other cases, human beings are considered honorary members of other species. There is reason to think that in the prehistoric ancient near east, human life was, like animal life, considered to be extinguished at death, and that the notion of a “soul” was not even metaphorically held . It seems there is no clear “default” view in foraging societies – which ought not to surprise us, as we have no reason to think that human culture was any the less complex in the past than now (technologies excepted).

One thing that is true of pre-agrarian existence is that foragers needed to understand the life-ways of their food species, both plant and animal. A forager that doesn’t know when a fruit or tuber is harvestable, or where a bird or other hunted animal lives or what it looks like, is a hungry forager. Experience of foragers in the modern era suggests they know the appearances, habits and habitats of their prey species as well or better than a modern biologist. However, if it isn’t hunted or gathered, they do no better than a suburban American. From this we may surmise that knowing the living world depends a lot upon what need we have for it.

Classification among foragers is generally fairly consistent with classification by biologists, excepting such cases as totemic animals and sacred species. In a famous paper, anthropologist Ralph Bulmer noted that among the New Guinea Highlanders, the cassowary (a flightless relative of the emu and the kiwi) was not classified as a bird, but afforded human rights and status (Bulmer 1967). The Karam do not hunt the cassowary, nor do they classify it among the birds, although their neighbours do. Similar attitudes occur among other foragers (Berlin 1973, Atran 1998).

But by and large, foragers, while never reaching the “in harmony with nature” myth of romanticism, do have a pretty decent handle on the objective biology they find around them. Did that change when humans became sedentary and started to live in towns and cities?

Some think so. One author believes that when cities evolved, martial necessities of walls to protect them (and thus to control the viable land surrounding them) made the inhabitants start to see civilised living as distinct from wilderness, and so to see humans as separate from the rest of the living world. I rather doubt this happened, if it did, in such a sudden fashion, but it seems reasonable that humans started to see themselves as separate to, or above, nature in the early period of civilisation (that is, the invention of city states), as we see it in several archaic myths, such as the Arcadia mythology of the Romans, yearning for a rural (that is, agricultural, not wild) past.

In fact, wilderness was less an idyllic scene to the early civilisations than it was something to be beaten back and feared, as farming was the source of civil wealth, not forests. The shift from the “riches of the forest” shared by foragers to the ownership by elites of the land on which farming and animal husbandry took place is crucial to understanding how the living world was seen after the Neolithic Revolution.

Every civilisation needed to understand basic facts about the animals and plants they farmed, so it is not surprising that societies like the Indus Valley, Mesopotamian cities, East Asian cultures and so forth all had extensive classifications of animals and plants, and understood a fair bit about anatomy and physiology. However, there is little to no evidence, Hindu apologists and similar movements aside, that the living world was the subject of a sustained and careful investigation in these areas. This is not to say that there were none, but only that the evidence does not survive if there were. Where there was, it was in the Hellenic civilisation of around the sixth century BCE.

Have I missed something? Made an error? Let me know in the comments. This series will be revised as we go.


Atran, S. (1998). “Folk biology and the anthropology of science: cognitive universals and the cultural particulars.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 21(4): 547–609.

Berlin, B. (1973). “Folk Systematics in Relation to Biological Classification and Nomenclature.” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 4(1): 259-271.

Bulmer, R. (1967). “Why is the cassowary not a bird? A problem among the Karam of the New Guinea highlands.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 2(1): 5-25.

2 thoughts on “The History of Life: Nature versus Humanity

  1. I wonder about the difference between living and non-living. We know that there were spirits in the rocks and rivers. I wonder whether there was much of a difference between living and existence.

    And between plants and animals – it is possible that there were other categories – like animal, vegegitable and mineral – is there someting universal about that division?

  2. Is there any reason to believe that hunter/gathers all conceptualized the world in a single fashion? They certainly didn’t all speak the same language, and the myths collected from a wide range of existing primitive societies are impressively diverse. A great many of these societies do seem to distinguish what we call culture from what we call nature in various ways; but none of them resort to metaphysical abstractions since myths convey their messages in sensuous images, c.f. the Raw and the Cooked. The point is they don’t all think about this distinction in the same way, assuming it makes sense to think of it as the same distinction.

    I’m also a bit dubious about the notion that totemism always or even usually implies an identification of men with animals or plants. It’s more like the members of the bear totem differ (and are related) to members of the beaver totem as bears are to beavers. People use natural differences as a way of articulating social differences. As Levi-Strauss put, natural species are good to think.

    By the way, the cognitive (as opposed to technological) exploitation of the natural world implies that primitive people have an interest in understanding their world that goes beyond what you need to know to track your prey or pick the edible tubers from the poisonous ones. In American myths, possums figure in stories that deal with the notion of bifurcation, presumably because possums, like other marsupials, have bifurcated penises. You wouldn’t have to know that to club a possum. It’s not at all an obvious fact about these animals. I only know about it because I once had a pet possum, and Brutus would sometimes get erections while he slept.

    In lieu of a lack of curiosity, I think the more likely explanation for the limitations of knowledge of biology on the part of hunter/gathers is the difficulty of accumulating knowledge in preliterate societies, especially in cases where the total population is small—highly isolated groups can’t remember as much as larger ones. The trajectory of cultural history is in large part a matter of increasing bandwidth and long-term storage.

    Early civilizations certainly distinguished the wild from the civilized. A key episode of the epic of Gilgamesh is the tale of how the wild man Enkidu was tamed by the highly civilized wiles of a city working girl.

    Sorry for rattling on. Thing is, the more I think about the early history of human attitudes towards nature, the more problematic the exercise seems to me, not only because the evidence is scant but because the evidence that exists doesn’t lend itself to the construction of a simple narrative.

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