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Prehistory – Natura

The major phases of human history

Human history can be divided into three major phases based on forms of energy capture: foraging (Natura), farming (Agraria), and fossil fuel use (Industria) (see History in 10,000 words).

The following circumscription outlines the key features of Natura.

Natura

EEA: wild nature

Communication: the oral traditions of pre-history

Lasts: 55,000 yrs (c. 70,000 – 15,000 BP)

Energy use: 1500-2000 kcal/cap/day

Group size: 10-20/100

World pop: to 3 million

Diet: Wild greens, fruits, seed, root vegetables with hunted game and fish

Values: little emphasis on political and wealth hierarchies but accept gender hierarchy and violence

Ecological impact: Humans were too few and insignificant to make any significant impact on ecosystems (perhaps some local impact on hunted animal populations). About 1 million years ago Homo erectus discovered fire and with this the capacity to intercede in the trophic cascades and the vegetation of pre-history.

 

EEA: wild nature
Communication: the oral traditions of pre-history
Lasts: 180,000 yrs (c. 200,000 – c. 12,000 BP)
Energy use: mostly as food for physical activity with a diet of wild animals and plants. 1500-2000 kcal/cap/day
Group size: 10-20-(100)
World pop: to 3 million
Diet: wild greens, fruits, seed, root vegetables with hunted game and fish
Values: little emphasis on political and wealth hierarchies but acceptance of gender hierarchy; acceptance of violence
Ecological impact: Humans were too few and insignificant to make any significant impact on ecosystems (perhaps some local impact on hunted animal populations). About 1 million years ago Homo erectus discovered fire and with this the capacity to intercede in the trophic cascades and the vegetation of pre-history

During this phase humans lived within wild nature in the ‘natural’ environment of evolutionary adaptation. After the evolutionary origin of Homo sapiens about 200,000 years ago it took about 55,000 years from about 70,000 BCE (when the population numbered about 50,000) to around 15,000 BCE (population about 3 million) for anatomically modern humans to migrate out of Africa and across the world as nomadic upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers. Direct interaction with nature had forged their biology (both physical and mental) through their long evolutionary history. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle needed an energy consumption of around 1500-2000 kcal/cap/day obtained from plants (usually harvested and prepared by women) and animals (mostly hunted by men). On the cusp of domestication around 10,000 BP this would have risen to an upper level consumption of around 5000 kcal/cap/day, about half of this obtained from food and the rest as the indirect energy needed to sustain life, the energy embodied in fuel, clothing, shelter, and other materials and vital life processes. Their values placed little emphasis on political and wealth hierarchies but accepted gender hierarchy and violence. This foraging phase of human history I have called natura.

 

Plant commentary & sustainability analysis

Energy

The mode of energy use determines what can be achieved by both individuals and communities. Individual energy use is of two kinds: the direct food energy that is needed to maintain biological metabolism, and the indirect energy needed to support human activity – like the energy consumed by the fire used for cooking and the energy embodied in the material used for clothing. The food energy needed to maintain a human body has remained approximately the same throughout history, it is the energy our bodies extract from the food that we eat. However, the amount of indirect energy expended in obtaining food varies widely according to the complexity of the society. Hunter-gatherers used tools and transport systems that required minimal energy expenditure. Today industrial agriculture uses energy intensive machinery, chemicals and transport systems in its food production. This gives us a general principle:

Principle 1 – the more dispersed and complex a society the more energy that is expended in food production

What applies specifically to food production applies broadly to social activity.

Principle 2 – As societies have become more complex so their per capita energy indirect expenditure has increased.

Another way of expressing this is to say that as social organization becomes more complex so there is a per capita increase in the energy intensity of human activity.

Plants

There are several caveats to principle 2. Organisms will maximise their reproductive capacity depending mostly on available energy but also circumstantial limitations. The mobility of the nomadic lifestyle places limits on the numbers of children that can be managed but without the constraint of mobility, family numbers can increase. This occurred with the settled lifestyle that was part of Agraria. Historian Morris suggests that there is an optimum form of social organization under such an energy regime and that this threshold was broken when the supply of energy was massively increased with the introduction of the concentrated energy of fossil fuels that was part of Industria.

Though a matter of degree, the relationship between plants and humans of Natura was between ‘wild’ humans (living nomadic lives within wild nature) and ‘wild’ plants growing naturally in natural environments. This contrasted significantly with ‘domesticated humans’ (living settled lives in man-made environments) and ‘domesticated’ (anthropogenically/genetically altered) plants and animals.

Evidence of potato-like roasted rhizomes of Hypoxis angustifolia in caves of the Lebombo Mountains in South Africa 170,000 years ago as determined by ESR. This is the earliest evidence of starchy food – which is more nutritious when cooked and also enables meat protein to be digested more efficiently.[1]

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