Human Ecology Origin and History

Humans have lived at the edge of desert and in the desert proper for ever and there are some indications that modern Homo sapiens evolved when the world climate turned to be more arid at the end of the Pleistocene. Though lacking many of the physical adaptations of true desert dwellers, we humans might be a desert species after all. One of the adaptations humans bring to live in the desert is a rather high heat tolerance. The combination of upright position that minimizes direct sun exposition during hottest times of the day, the profusion of sweat glands all over the body, and the lack ofbody hair, together with an energetically conservative way of movements, contributes to our ability to cope with hot deserts. As long as water and salt balances are maintained, humans can perform relatively well under heat stress. This is evidenced by the success of persistence-hunting practices in desert and semideserts, which involves tracking large ungulate prey on foot during midday heat. Such persistence hunting, today only employed by hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari Desert, has been the most successful mode of hunting prior to the domestication of dogs, and uses the relative heat balance advance that a well-hydrated and trained human can have over animal quadrupeds. Recent data show that contemporary hunters run for 2-5 h over distances

Figure 16 Many ancient sites thrived near or in deserts. The former Nabatean capital Petra is located in a desert valley surrounded by steep mountains. From here the Nabateans, an Arabic tribe, controlled the trade through the deserts of the Middle East. Petra, Jordan, October 2003. Photograph by C. Holzapfel.

Figure 16 Many ancient sites thrived near or in deserts. The former Nabatean capital Petra is located in a desert valley surrounded by steep mountains. From here the Nabateans, an Arabic tribe, controlled the trade through the deserts of the Middle East. Petra, Jordan, October 2003. Photograph by C. Holzapfel.

of 15-35 km at temperatures of 39-42 °C until prey items (mostly antelopes) overheat and can be overcome.

Deserts have been important throughout human history and the first civilizations arose in or close to deserts (Mesopotamia and Egypt). Agriculture practices, often involving irrigation, are sometimes interpreted as cultural ways to deal with the stochasticity of the desert climate. It is interesting to note that the first written law, the codex written by the Babylonian King Hammurabi dating back to 1750 BC, was designed to manage such crucial irrigation systems. It is basically the same set of laws that gave rise to our modern laws. Since ancient history, deserts have been the cradle of great civilizations on one hand and the theater of fierce armed conflict on the other (Figure 16). One wonders whether the nuclear weapons tests that have been conducted in the deserts of New Mexico and Nevada (among other desert sites worldwide) symbolize that deserts can foster both the beginning and the end of civilization.

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