For example, the mode of life of Pygmies of Congo basin differs from that of the Badawins of Saudi Arabia. Likewise, the Aboriginals of Australian desert and Eskimos of Tundra region have been compelled by their environments to practice hunting for their survival. The Nagas, who used to practise head-hunting till recent past, have a much closed territorial demarcation and their lifestyle is altogether different from the Nepalese and Kukis living in the same environment. The Gujjars and Bakarwals, who oscillate in the higher Himalayas and the Siwaliks in the summer and winter seasons, differ from the Kashmiris and Dogras who also live in the same habitat.
These variations in the lifestyle, in fact, are expressions of man’s adjustment to his natural environment. The impact of environment on man and his adaptation to physical environment have been emphasized by the Greek, Roman and Arab scholars. Aristotle and Darwin were also of the same view that man struggles for his survival. Apart from material gains and cultural achievements, food, clothing, shelter, tools, technology, customs, traditions, socio-economic institutions, higher needs like religion, faith, language, literature, fine arts and folklore, folk medicine etc., are directly or indirectly influenced by the physical environment. In other words, man has moulded his habits and lifestyle according to his physical surroundings and natural endowments. The indigenous peoples living in the areas of isolation and relative isolation are judiciously utilizing their habitat without disturbing much the ecological balance, though their economies are often called primitive and their technology dismissed as ‘Stone Age’.
A number of examples may be cited to show the symbiotic relationship of the primitive social groups and their physical surroundings. For example, the mobile hunting and fishing have allowed the Inuit’s (Eskimos) to survive in the inhospitable Arctic (-50°C) temperature. The protein-rich food obtained from reindeer, other game and fish, their fur clothes, igloo (shelters) and sledges, etc., show the skill of Inuit’s and their capacity to adjust to their environment.
The nomadic pastoralism in Saudi Arabia and Sahara deserts provides a livelihood to the Badawins and Tureghs. The Kirghizs and Kazakhs of the Central Asian Republics are maintaining good standard of food and nutrition in their fragile ecosystems of pastures. Shifting cultivation has sustained and is sustaining thousands of distinct cultures in the highly vulnerable ecosystems of tropical rain forests of Amazon, Congo basin, the islands of South-East Asia and the hilly regions of North-East, Central and Southern India. Non-indigenous peoples would not have been able to survive in these extreme conditions without destroying the balance of ecosystem.
The various ethnic groups and indigenous peoples have developed certain norms, traditions and values to protect their environment while obtaining their food, fuel and other basic needs. For example, the Pygmies of Congo basin construct their houses at tree; the Masais of the eastern plateau of Africa live in circular enclosures in order to protect their cattle against the wild beasts; and the nomads of West Asian deserts install khaimas (tents) and dismantle them when they move from one pasture to another. The Gujjars and Bakarwals of Jammu & Kashmir, the Tharus of the Terai region of Uttar Pradesh (now Uttranchal), and the Bhutias and Lapchas of Sikkim and Bhutan oscillate in the valleys and alpine pastures with their cattle to utilize the available green grasses in the different seasons of the year. The terraced farming of Angami Nagas (tribe living around Kohima), the humming of Lothas, Aos, Semas, Konyaks, Kukis, Garos, Khasis and Mizos of the North-East India, and the rice-fish culture in the paddy fields by the Apatanis (Arunachal Pradesh) are the results of their physical environment. These peoples have been forced by their environment to adopt a particular mode of life and they have developed appropriate technologies for the utilization of their resources, and to maintain their ecosystems, resilient and sustainable. The key to the success is sustainability. These tribal’s and ethnic groups utilize the available resources rationally without depleting them. For this purpose they use their intimate knowledge of plants, animals, soils, climate, seasons and terrains, not to exploit nature but to co-exist with it.
This involves careful management of resources and control of population. The Eskimos of the American Arctic and Asiatic Tundra are representatives of hundreds of tribal peoples who have adjusted themselves to the harsh Arctic environment. The Eskimos exemplified adaptation to extremely cold climates. Their main sustenance is still being obtained from marine Arctic mammals (whales, seals, walruses), which they hunt with the greatest skill and with indigenous weapons fabricated largely from driftwood. They can paddle across open water in skin-covered, small boats. They habituated themselves to a meat diet.
They use animal oil for cooking, heating and lighting. They built their igloos (winter homes) of ice-blocks. They use furs for clothing and bedding.
In summer, they move away from the coast to hunt caribou and reindeer and to gather wild fruits, sheltering themselves in skin-covered tents. They live and migrate in small groups or single families. The prevailing environmental conditions of tundra region impose special conditions on the life of man, plants and animals. In the winter season, the sun does not appear above the horizon.
Continuous months of relative darkness lead to a depressing influence which gradually affects the temperament and morale of even those most accustomed to these cold conditions. The darkness and close confinement which it entails frequently brings on mental disorder, fits of madness, or suicide due to neurasthenia. To reduce the pressure of population on the limited resources during inclement weather, they have developed a unique tradition. At the time of scarcity of food in long, dark and dreaded winters of stormy nights, the senior-most member crawls out of the igloo (when other members of the family are sleeping) and tracks down on ice barefooted, till he gets exhausted. After reaching at unknown destination, he removes his fur clothes and dies instantaneously of exposure, under the freezing temperature which may be as low as 50°C. This unique way of committing suicide by elderly Eskimos is justified by them as it saves the limited food supplies for their children and other family members.
In the hot and humid climates of equatorial region (Amazon, Congo basin, and islands of South-East Asia) the lifestyle of peoples is largely controlled by physical environment. The Semangs and Sakais of Malaysia, the Pygmies of Congo basin, the Bushmen of Kalahari desert, the Aeta people of the Philippines, the Kubu of Sumatra, the Toalas of Celebes and the Andamanese Negrito people are still in the hunting and food gathering stage because of their harsh climatic conditions. Semangs, the hill dwellers of Malaysian peninsula, resemble in stature and colour to Pygmies of the Congo basin.
Owing to their affinity with Negroes, they are often referred as Negritoes. The Semangs do not practice agriculture, have no domestic animals, and are almost exclusively dependent on forest produce. They migrate continuously, save for short natural harvests, and rarely stay more than three or four days at one place.
The resources of any one locality are limited and will not support a dense population. Consequently, the individual groups among the Semangs are small. A band of twenty or thirty persons including children is considered as large. Throughout his life, a man will remain with a handful of his kin. The knowledge and opinion of his elders are the only views he hears.
His life has been made almost stagnant and stable and there is hardly any change in his lifestyle. The overdependence of Semangs on vegetable food, hunting and fishing is owed to the environmental compulsions. They have to gather wide varieties of berries, nuts, pith, leaves, shoots and especially roots, tubers and wild yams.
In the hot and humid equatorial climate little may be stored or preserved. Their hunting is sporadic and confined too little game like rats, birds, squirrels, lizards, monkeys and wild pigs. Wooden bow and arrows is their only weapon.
They have no dog and often catch birds in simple noose and spring traps. Like their food supply the clothing of the Semangs is supplied mainly from vegetation of the surrounding forests. They make their clothes from the leaves and barks of trees. Thus, the Semangs are in the hunting stage and have a symbiotic relationship with their physical environment.
The Sakais, living in the lower altitudes and valleys in Malaya, build rectangular huts of tree stems and branches, which are walled with bark strips or plaited palm and roofed with palm leaves. Thus, the entire house construction materials are obtained from within their surroundings. Are these not the typical examples of man’s adjustment to his environment? The life in the arid and semi-arid areas is difficult because of the scarcity of water for drinking and irrigation.
The inadequacy of rainfall and scarcity of water in the arid areas have resulted into most complex mode of life in dry regions. All development of life in dry regions is subject to water supply. Even when the temperature might ensure for plants (crops) a sufficiently long period in which growth might take place, the lack of moisture imposes strict limitations.
Owing to uncertain and precarious supply of water that all human life is of an unstable character. The yield from crops is irregular and poor, and the whole crop is at the mercy of an erratic rainfall. Agriculture in such areas is not a reliable economic activity and cattle keeping are the dominant activity of the workforce. In order to feed their cattle, goats and sheep, the shepherds have to move them about from pasture to pasture. Pastoralism in such areas assumes nomadism, and its pastures are often at the mercy of drought. Another example of man’s adjustment to his environment may be cited from the mountainous areas of the world. In the hilly and mountainous areas, the life of peoples is closely being controlled by terrain and geo-climatic conditions. Mountains have cradled states and kept them independent.
The mountains have, however, always given rise to closed societies, self-centered, orthodox and preserving old customs. They have often served as a refuge for people driven back from the lowlands (plains) by conquerors who have better development techniques. Sowing of crops on the steep slopes, covered with thin soils, of high altitudes is not a rewarding economic activity in mountainous tracts.
Under the low temperature conditions of high altitudes, the cereal crops like maize take a very long period to harvest. In the French Alps, for example, there are numerous tracts in which corn (maize) takes thirteen months to mature. Maize is sown in July or August, and the harvest is reaped in September of the following year. The cultivable soil is poor, for it is constantly being eroded owing to the steepness of the slopes.
In the young folded mountains like Himalayas, Alps, Caucasus, Tien-Shan and Hindukush, transhumance is practiced to utilize the winter and summer pastures. In the summers, when snow melting results into green pastures the transhumant’s ascend in the alpine pastures, while in the winter season when temperature goes below freezing point, they descend to the winter pastures situated at low altitudes. Thus, the life of these people is a kind of periodical shifting.
This oscillation movement assumes that they must have two separate dwellings—a permanent one in the village at low altitudes and another in the form of hut in alpine pastures. The life of the people living in mountains is also restricted by the inversion of temperature causing hard frost and the stagnation of layers of frozen fog. Moreover, they have to avoid the path of avalanches (e.g., Nashri near Batote and Ramban on the Jammu-Srinagar National Highway). The movement of mass of snow and rocks may be hazardous for human establishments. In the mountains people generally settled down on alluvial fans (Dachigam-Telbal alluvial fan in Kashmir near Srinagar).
These alluvial fans deposited by fluvial action are highly productive and provide good sustenance to their populations. Within the mountains, there are numerous lakes and points of aesthetic beauty. At such places, tourist spots and hill resorts have been developed which are the centers of attraction for the local, regional, national and international tourists. The people of the mountains, where terrain and climatic conditions are not very conducive, have also adjusted well in their physical environment. Mountains influence the life of their inhabitants and social groups and their neighbours fundamentally and variously, but always reveal their barrier nature. For example, the Himalayas, for the occupants of its southern slope, provide an abundant rainfall; while to the leeward side they admit dry winds, and only from the melting snow or the precipitation on their summit do they yield a scanty supply of water.
The Himalayas are flanked by the teeming millions of India and the scattered nomadic tribes of Tibet. Mountains are always a challenge to the energies of man. Their beauty, the charm of the unknown beyond tempts the enterprising spirit; the hardships and dangers of their roads daunt or baffle the weak people, but by the powerful ones whose strength is able to dwarf the obstacles is found beyond a prize of victory. Such were Alexander the Great, Genghiz Khan, Napoleon, Hannibal, Babar and others who toiled across the Himalayas, Alps, Rockies and Andese.
Old worn-down mountains, like the Applachians, the Urals, the Aravallis, broad as they are, have been less effective obstacles than the towering crests of Alps, Himalayas and Caucasus. The Pamir, high but accessible, was a pass way in the 10th century for Chinese carvans bound for the ‘Silk Land’ to the Oxus river and the Caspian Sea town of Baku. Here, Marco Polo and many other travelers after him found fodder for their pack animals and food for themselves, because they could always purchase meat from the visiting shepherds. Thus, mountains of different elevations situated in different climatic zones have varying influence on the society and inhabitants living in and around them. In many areas, it is not the productive land, rich mines, or forests which provide sustenance and shelter, but man is born and brought up on water.
For example, the water-dwellers (Hanjis) of Dal, Wular, Anchar and Manasbal lakes of Kashmir have a water-oriented lifestyle. The Moro Bajan of southern Philippines and Sulu archipelago are sea gypsies (nomads). About the Moro Bajan, it is said that their home is in their boats from the cradle to the grave, and they know no art but of fishing.
Subsisting almost exclusively on sea food, they wander about from shore to shore, one family to a boat, and in little fleets of half a dozen sail. Every floating community has its own headman called the Captain Bajan, who embodies all their slender political organization. When occasionally they abandon their rude boats for a time, they do not abandon the sea, but raise their huts on piles above the water on some shelving beach. Like the ancient lake-dwellers of Kashmir and Switzerland, only in death do they acknowledge their ultimate connection with the solid land.
They never bury their dead at sea, but always on a particular island, which the funeral cortege of rude out rigged boats moves to the music of the paddle’s dip. In the densely populated valley of Kashmir, especially in and around the city of Srinagar, a substantial proportion of the population lives in dongas (boats). In the Dal Lake and Jhelum River, the Hanjis present the phenomenon of human life overflowing from the land to the lakes and streams of the country; because these water bodies afford a means of livelihood. Apart from the food supplies, they offer an unclaimed bit of the earth’s surface for a floating home. Some of the donga boats of Hanjis accommodate large families, together with modest poultry; others are handsome house boats (five-star hotels) ornamented with flower plants.
The Hanji population of Kashmir is exempted from taxation and even their floating gardens (vegetable fields) are exempted from land and water revenues. For their sustenance and to add to their income, they develop floating gardens on rafts and grasses covered with mud and earth, on which they plant tomatoes, cucumber, gourds, onions, garlic’s and pumpkins. They also keep ducks which are trained to go into the water to feed and return at a signal.
There are small boat-shops, selling grocery, general provisions, fruits, flowers, mutton, clothes and medicines. These small boat-shops move from one donga (house boat) to another in the Dal Lake. The Hanjis of Kashmir provide an interesting example of man’s adjustment to the water bodies and lakes ecosystems and environment. The lifestyle, economy, society, religion, beliefs and the cultural ethos of food gathering and pastoral communities of Amazon basin and other Latin American regions are also largely controlled by the climate and natural vegetation. The Boro is a sub-group of Red Indians of the western Amazon forests. Their habitats receive high temperature and moisture throughout the year. It is covered with vast equatorial forests.
The damp heat and the rich alluvial soil, fertilized by the decay of the vegetation itself, promote the luxuriant growth of vegetation. Creepers of many kinds and of every size, loop from tree to tree, pushing up the sunlight and knotting the undergrowth into impenetrable thickets. Lichens and mosses cover the tree trunks. The spines of the palms which grow in the shade of the loftier trees, the thorns of climbing plants and the attacks of ants, mosquitoes and flies add to the difficulties of travel in the forest. Communication over any considerable distance is forced on to the waterways. In this harsh environment of the equatorial region of Amazon basin, the Boros occupy small clearings in forests which are made by laboriously burning down the trees in some relatively open tract. The group does not live in scattered huts but occupies a single large house, 20 to 25 metres on each side and 10 to 12 metres high.
They have no domestic animals and do not even keep dogs. They hunt the wild game of the forest but this is relatively meager, but their main dependence is on agriculture (root crops, tubers, cassava, coca, tobacco). These people acquire a remarkable tolerance for the drug, which enables them, when taken in large quantities, to go for several days without sleep, food or drink. Since mineral salt in not obtainable, the Boros eat certain earths (scraped from the hearth) to make the deficiency. Their clothes are made of bark and paint their bodies and the lips and wear wood ear lobes. Boros are not organized and their unity of speech and custom results from their communal houses. These people have many widespread customs to utilize the forests and to conserve them.
Among the Boros, prisoners are taken and are carried off by the victors; the adults are killed and eaten at the dance feast which celebrates the event. Captured children too young to escape and so betray the settlement to the enemy are, however, handed over to the chief, who brings them up as members of his household in which they serve. These captives, in whom the captives take great pride as evidence of successful fighting, are in some sense the slaves of the chief. The ceremonial cannibalism practiced at the feast which follows a successful fight must undoubtedly keep alive the spirit of revenge and the tradition of hostility. Only small portions of the limbs of victims are eaten, and the rest is discarded as unclean.
The skulls are often suspended as trophies in the house (the Headhunters in Borneo and Nagaland also used to follow the same tradition). The environmental conditions of the Amazon forests are thus adverse to cultural development. The small communities living in dense forests in isolation are not exposed to the outside world.
Their social life deeply tinged with fear of the evil magical power of all other men is also a barrier in their advancement. In this society the process of development is highly constrained by the harsh environment. It is one of the regions where nature has the upper hand and determines the destiny of man. Environmental constraints are quite serious in the hot deserts and dry lands. The rainfall in such areas is meager and highly erratic. An entire year’s rainfall may occur in just one or two storms of great intensity that produce rapid runoff, flash flooding, severe gulling and erosion. The annual grasses complete their growth cycle and set seed quickly, the seed itself possessing the ability to resist long periods of desiccation until the next burst of moisture.
Rodents, camels and gazelles all possess a degree of drought hardiness and water use efficiency unknown in other environments. The inhabitants of such areas exhibit similar adaptive ability. They have marked spatial mobility, flexibility in diet, and maintenance of low population densities which enhance the resilience character of the fragile ecosystem. Nomadic pastoralism is the classic example of a livelihood adaptation to widely dispersed fodder and water resources. The size of the herds also decreased or increased as per the availability of fodder and water in the region. The social institutions, the mutual cooperation, the sharing of pastures and water resources, the social customs, traditions and economic decision making process of the people of dry lands and their overall cultural ethos are such that they are adapting themselves in a highly vulnerable ecosystem and maintaining the environment at a reasonably healthy condition. Their every action is directed to make the environment sustainable not only for the present but also for the generations to come.
The indigenous peoples have adjusted well in their natural environment without disturbing the ecological balance, though their economies are often called primitive, their technology dismissed as Stone Age. Hunting and fishing have allowed the Inuit’s of Canada and Nootka of Columbia to survive in harsh environments. The Tuareg of Sahara are practicing nomadic pastoralism efficiently and successfully in the extensive arid and water-deficient areas. The Palus food gatherers and hunters of the Pacific Islands travel up to 500 kms (300 miles) in canoes at a speed of 40 kms per hour to catch fish and to maintain their social contacts. The shifting cultivators are sustaining themselves in the highly fragile ecosystems of hills and forests all over the humid-tropical world.
Non-indigenous peoples would not have been able to survive in these extreme conditions without destroying the balance of the ecosystem. The Pygmies of Congo basin, the Masais of the Eastern Highlands of Africa, the Badwins of Arabia, the Kirghiz and Kazakh transhumant’s of Central Asian Republics, the Gujjars and Bakarwals of Jammu & Kashmir, the Tharus of the Uttranchal, the Lapchas and Bhutias of Sikkim and Bhutan, the Apatanis of Arunachal Pradesh and numerous tribes of the North-East Indian states and that of Chotanagpur plateau are utilizing their resources in a way so that they may keep their habitats in healthy condition and sustain themselves at a reasonable standard of nutrition. The key to the success is sustainability. These people use the resources available without depleting them. They use their intimate knowledge of plants, animals, soils, climate, and seasons, not to exploit nature but to co-exist alongside it. This involves careful management, control of population, the use of small quantities but a wide diversity of plants and animals, small surpluses, and minimum wastage.
Plants provide food, medicines, pesticides, poisons, and building materials, whereas animals provide meat, clothes, strings, implements, and oil. The economic life of indigenous peoples and the tribal’s living in the areas of isolation and relative isolation is based on cooperation and not on competition. The survival is possible only when the community works together. Most small-scale indigenous societies have elaborate systems for sharing food, possessions and ritualizing conflict.
And, although largely self-sufficient, many groups have developed mutually beneficial trading relationships. For example, shifting cultivators in the forests of North-East India have traded with their settled neighbours for centuries. Their means of production (land and forests) belong to the community and not to the individuals. Their basic philosophy is “from each according to his capacity and to each according to his needs”.
In fact, they live with and not against the nature.