TCS Daily

Ancient Survivor

By Sallie Baliunas - June 5, 2003 12:00 AM

Archaeological evidence dates the oldest known tools, which were fabricated from stone by our hominid ancestors in the Omo and Gona Basins in Ethiopia, at nearly 2.4 million years. In tool making, our forebears developed skills that could be kept in the kit hominids use for survival. As a result of using tools, hominids sometimes imprinted the environment with their presence. In turn, by reshaping the environment to survive, hominids brought on unplanned and unpredictable cultural reformations, a feedback loop involving hominid experiences and the environment that continues to this day, and has no expectation of halting as tool making advances.

Many cultural changes flowed in time and ultimately led to our present wealth, scientific knowledge and technologies that allow us to consider seriously how we reshape the environment for survival. Ancient cultures, bereft of such resources, sometimes handled natural threats in an expedient way that today would be considered undesirable.

About 10,000 years ago the vast ice sheets of the glacial period receded and climate entered the current phase of general warmth. Across southwestern Asia, the equable climate contributed to what archaeologist V. Gordon Childe (Man Makes Himself) viewed in 1936 as a revolution in humankind. In a relatively short time - a few thousand years - herding and farming replaced the hunter-gatherer way that hominids had lived for several million years. A world of approximately 10 million people about 10,000 years ago, grouped almost entirely into low-density hunter-gatherer groups, was rapidly transformed into more densely populated societies by herding and farming, forming the first towns and cities. Today only a fraction of one percent of the population exists in hunter-gatherer societies like the Aborigines.

Ancient agriculture and herding changed human culture along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, spanned today by Iraq. Of the many civilizations to have arisen there, Assyria reached its zenith from about 900 to 600 B.C.E.

In 1845 British archaeologist A. Henry Layard began to uncover the remains of the breathtaking palace of King Ashurnasirpal II, located in what was then Assyria's capital, Nimrud, about 10 miles south of present-day Mosul on the Tigris River. Panels sculpted around 865 B.C.E. in King Ashurnasirpal's throne room celebrate the royal sport of lion hunting. The king's archives recount, "the gods Ninurta and Nergal, who love my priesthood, gave me the wild animals of the plains, commanding me to hunt. 30 elephants I trapped and killed; 257 great wild oxen I brought down with my weapons, attacking from my chariot; 370 great lions I killed with my hunting-spears" (Julian Reade, Assyrian Sculpture).

Local culture believed the great beasts were divine gifts to the king for him to kill as a display of his power, and for sport. That kingly authority added to the need sometimes to dispatch threatening wildlife when humans expanded into animal habitat. Limited by technology and resources, Assyrians had little choice in reducing the threat of deadly lions except by killing them. The gods nodded in approval.

In 1853 an assistant of Layard, Hormuzd Rassum, working just east of the Tigris River and within present-day Mosul, found sculpted panels that had decorated the walls of the private chambers of the Palace of King Ashurbanipal in the relocated capital, Nineveh. The heavy slabs, around five feet high and unfolding their story over tens of feet, were sculpted approximately 645 B.C.E. They were arduously transported to the British Museum, where visitors can now view a royal lion hunt on a scale that disturbs the modern mind.

Ashurbanipal's inscriptions describe an unusually rainy period that helped to trigger a great increase in the lion population, which resulted in attacks on people and livestock. In the interest of protecting his kingdom, King Ashurbanipal destroyed many lions and commemorated his prowess on the panels. As with King Ashurnasirpal II, the technology and culture afforded little choice but to remove the lions by killing them, which also emphasized his royal status. That meant, as pictured on the panels, engaging the lions in battle to their death, even if the odds of the king's success in the battle had to be artificially raised.

Thus, after lions were trapped they were brought in cages to a hunting arena. Released from their cages for the royal sport, the lions were set upon by the king's soldiers and mastiffs, while the king conducted largely scripted and ritualized hunting. To the modern eye, the sculpted story showing the savaging of so many lions seems at first to have been carved by the artist to elicit empathy with the beasts. But the mayhem, according to British Museum curator, Julian Reade, is meant to prove to the ancient mind that the power of the feared and deadly animal could be reduced by their king to a state of ridiculous impotency as lions are depicted thrust with arrows, spears and swords or pounded with maces in stages of agonizing death. The portrayal of the king's power over the lion was more striking than the panels presently show because the scenes were originally rendered in vivid polychrome.

Twenty-seven hundred years ago the technology and culture needed to solve the problem of excessive lion intrusion into human settlements mercilessly depleted the Assyrian lion population. Eventually that subspecies of lion, the Middle Eastern lion, became extinct as a result of hunting and human-caused changes in habitat.

Technological and social revolution have persisted since cities and towns evolved into the first full civilizations. It is those changes, in parallel with tremendously expanded economic resources, that enable modern societies to consider more than just brute force as a way of coping with an ecosystem response like lion overpopulation brought about by unusually heavy rainfall for several seasons. Societies now could afford and accept the luxury of living through a temporary lion overpopulation.

This unremitting process that has occurred for millions of years still transforms hominids and nature. Always laboring with newly-emerging tools to alter the environment for survival, hominids have brought about radical changes in their societies and themselves toward unpredictable ends. The scope of history helps put our current tools and technologies in useful perspective. Looking back at ancient peoples, one might be tempted to call their environmental decisions inappropriate, even barbaric. But such a judgment is made - and is only possible - within the safety of a modern culture of technologically driven affluence where improving the environment is now, thankfully, an affordable luxury.

Note: Efforts are underway to restore the Baghdad Museum, whose object inventories have been destroyed and treasures looted ( The artifacts of southwestern Asia represent an important origin and evolution - that of full civilization.

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