How Humans Adapted to Their Environments

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  • 0:01 Humans and Their Environments
  • 0:54 The Need for Water
  • 3:01 Early Humans and Agriculture
  • 4:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the impact of early humans on their environments and discover how these first communities survived. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Humans and Their Environments

We still cannot control the weather. What's up with that? I mean, this is the 21st century, people. Why do I still have to worry about whether or not the roads will be closed due to snow over New Year's?

The urge to modify the world around us dates back thousands and thousands of years. Since humans first began to organize into small communities, they started putting time and effort into making their environments easier to live in. The first major accomplishments in this came during the Neolithic era, when people stopped moving around and settled down in one place. Before this, the closest people came to adapting to their environments was in building fires or making clothes for different kinds of weather. Once people settled down in one place, they had to adapt to a single environment and started making some incredible changes.

The Need for Water

Of the basic human needs, one of the most fundamental is water. Every culture across history needed access to water, and this led to one of the first major adaptations to the environment: irrigation. Irrigation is the process of bringing water from a natural source to an area without reliable water. With irrigation, early humans could use natural water sources, like rivers, to provide water to towns that might be miles away. The most basic form of irrigation is the use of trenches to redirect water to the desired area. This was the foundation of the first examples of irrigation that occurred in ancient Mesopotamia roughly 10,000 years ago. Eventually, cultures like the ancient Romans or ancient Aztec Empire, built upon the basic channels to create contained pipes called aqueducts that carried water from fresh springs miles into the city.

Although channels and trenches were the basis of most irrigation, people around the world found different ways to use the natural environment to make this more efficient. Some early societies used the natural flooding of rivers to fill up wells and relied on the very fertile soil by riverbanks. The Nile River in Egypt and the Niger River in Sub-Saharan Africa are rivers that flooded every year at the same time, making them predictable and reliable. Cultures in both of these areas developed irrigation that relied on channels and wells filled by annual flooding.

Not every culture had access to nice, reliable rivers with flat flood plains. Some people lived in the mountains, where the steep slopes made irrigation difficult. These people developed terraced irrigation by using long retaining walls to build up flat platforms wide enough to collect or redirect water. This method was used by the early people who lived in the mountains of South America, India, and China.

In the desert of ancient Persia, modern-day Iran, people found one more unique way to gather water. Qanats, or deep vertical wells, tapped into the ground water, and then tunnels transported it wherever it was needed. No matter where you looked in the ancient world, early human communities were finding new and creative means to ensure that they always had access to water.

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