We may admire the reverence our ancestors had for the environment, but it is important to note that their harmony with the Earth came not entirely of their own free will.
Cavemen were very much in tune with the environment. They had to be—they depended on it for everything, from sustenance to shelter.
If they were careless with the resources they had, cave dwellers risked starving in winter before the thaw brought new crops. There was also the possibility of depleting an area of needed resources for survival if not careful.
When a caveman ran out of firewood thousands of years ago, he couldn’t go to the local store and grab some more—he probably froze. No one could afford to take anything for granted. In that sense, cavemen were in many ways wiser than we are today.
An ecological footprint can be measured in many ways. How well the cavemen would stack up by the numbers to modern standards is a factor of a zillion different variables that everyone would have to guess at anyway.
However, if the spirit behind the concept is considered, which is how humans interact with their ecosystems and what their demands are, the cavemen are safe bets to have got it right.
Our Paleolithic ancestors didn’t place undue demands on their environment, partly because they were more in tune with nature, but also because they had not yet developed the tools for greater exploitation, even if they had chosen a different path.
Nevertheless, available evidence suggests that the cavemen treated their surroundings with care, using what was available and not letting anything go to waste. This can be seen in archeological digs at the sites of the earliest known humans.
What’s found there are not a lot of random adornments or useless items. Rarely are there any signs of prehistoric leftovers.
Early humans learned quickly that sustaining the environment they lived in made it more likely that it would continue to support them for extended stretches, and they lived their lives accordingly.
It’s hard to know what they would think if they could see our modern landfills, with empty water bottles and disposable diapers littering the landscape. But it’s easy to guess that their reaction would be some form of horrified despair. And they’d be right.
Nowadays, people often act like the Earth will be around in its current state forever, even as the evidence mounts that human behavior is forever altering the environment.
Cavemen could not afford to treat the planet with that kind of a cavalier attitude. We might do well to emulate them today.
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