400,000 years  before current epoch (BCE) — Controlled use of fire by early humans began, according to many researchers.

7,000 BCE — Emergence of Catal Huyuk, Jarmo and Alosh cultures in the Middle East. The destruction of lush forests may have given rise to myths about the Garden of Eden. (O’Brien, 1985) Also see K.J.W. Oosthoek, The role of wood in world history.

c.7,000 BCE — Lead castings in Anatolia (Turkey).

6,000 BCE — Deforestation leads to collapse of communities in southern Israel / Jordan. (Grove, 1995).

6,000 BCE — An agricultural crisis leads to more herding of goats and sheep, and partly as a result, the discovery of cheese, according to Paul Kindstedt, author of the book Cheese.    This was important because human adults, at the time, were lactose intolerant, and cheese was the only way an adult could eat dairy products. Human evolution has since eliminated lactose intolerance in most people.

2700 BCE —  Epic of Gilgamesh describes vast tracts of cedar forests in what is now southern Iraq.   Gilgamesh defies the gods and cuts down the forest, and in return the gods say they will curse Sumeria with fire (or possibly drought). By 2100 BCE, soil erosion and salt buildup have devastated agriculture. One Sumerian wrote that the “earth turned white.” Civilization moved north to Babylonia and Assyria. Again, deforestation becomes a factor in the rise and subsequent fall of these civilizations. (Perlin, 1991).

2700 BC — Some of the first laws protecting the remaining forests are decreed in Ur, Messopotamia. (Grove, 1995).

2600 BCE — Large scale commercial timbering of cedars in Phoenicia (Lebanon) for export to Egypt and Sumeria. Similar commercial timbering in South India.   

2500 BCE — First Water War, Mesopotamia — King of Lagash diverts water to deprive rival Sumerian kingdom of Umma of water in the “Gu’edena” (Edge of Paradise) region in present-day Iraq.  The story of this first conflict was engraved on clay cylinders and somehow managed to survive 43 centuries before it ended up in a French museum.  The story shows the back-and-forth nature of early warfare, as well as the role of water as both source of conflict  and a target for conflict.

The war began with a dispute over how much water the city of Lagash should take from common irrigation canals. Apparently the two cities had an agreement about how the system should work, but and at some point, Umma destroyed monuments and boundary markers set out by the city of Lagash.  The ruler of Umma “was as puffed up as the mountains,” one Lagesh inscription says.  He “wickedly flooded the diked and irrigated field; he commanded that the boundary canal … be ruined.”  So the armies of Lagesh killed 60 of the Umma soldiers and “left their bones on the plain.”  Then the ruler of Lagesh “restored their canal to its place according to the righteous word of Enlil …  Their canal which he had constructed from the river Tigris to the great river, the protecting structure, its foundation he had made of stone.”  (Hatami & Gleick, 1994).

2500 BCE — Mohenjo Darro civilization of Indus River valley achieves high level of public health and citywide sanitation.

2000 BCE — Lead used as pigment in Crete.

1720 BCE — Abi-Eshuh, grandson of Hammurabi and ruler of Sumer, dams the Tigris River in an attempt to prevent the retreat of rebels from Babylon.  (Hatami & Gleick, 1994).

1500 BCE — Soil erosion is both a consequence of growth and a cause of collapse of Central American city -states. (Grove, 1995).

1300 BCE — Hebrew law as proclaimed by Moses includes provisions for humane slaughter and care of work animals. (M. Clifton, 2007)

1450 BCE — Minoan civilization in the Mediterranean declines, but scholars are divided on the cause. Possibly a volcanic eruption was the source of the catastrophe. On the other hand, gradual deforestation may have led to materials shortages in manufacturing and shipping. Loss of timber and subsequent deterioration of its land was probably a factor in the decline of Minoan power in the late Bronze Age, according to John Perlin in A Forest Journey.

1200 BCE — Troy dominates trade between the Aegean and Black seas due to its position on the north coast of what is now Turkey. Deforestation and soil erosion moves the coastline north over the ages. The ancient city is rediscovered in 1870 when Heinrich Schliemann accounts for the build-up of the coast over the centuries.

Earliest ideas about nature, East and West

Short excerpt from Rabindranath Tagore’s    SĀDHANĀ,    (See for  full text)

The civilisation of ancient Greece was nurtured within city walls. In fact, all the modern civilisations have their cradles of brick and mortar.

These walls leave their mark deep in the minds of men. They set up a principle of “divide and rule” in our mental outlook, which begets in us a habit of securing all our conquests by fortifying them and separating them from one another. We divide nation and nation, knowledge and knowledge, man and nature. It breeds in us a strong suspicion of whatever is beyond the barriers we have built, and everything has to fight hard for its entrance into our recognition.

When the first Aryan invaders appeared in India it was a vast land of forests, and the new-comers rapidly took advantage of them. These forests afforded them shelter from the fierce heat of the sun and the ravages of tropical storms, pastures for cattle, fuel for sacrificial fire, and materials for building cottages. And the different Aryan clans with their patriarchal heads settled in the different forest tracts which had some special advantage of natural protection, and food and water in plenty.

Thus in India it was in the forests that our civilisation had its birth, and it took a distinct character from this origin and environment. It was surrounded by the vast life of nature, was fed and clothed by her, and had the closest and most constant intercourse with her varying aspects…

The west seems to take a pride in thinking that it is subduing nature; as if we are living in a hostile world where we have to wrest everything we want from an unwilling and alien arrangement of things. This sentiment is the product of the city-wall habit and training of mind. For in the city life man naturally directs the concentrated light of his mental vision upon his own life and works, and this creates an artificial dissociation between himself and the Universal Nature within whose bosom he lies.

But in India the point of view was different; it included the world with the man as one great truth. India put all her emphasis on the harmony that exists between the individual and the universal. She felt we could have no communication whatever with our surroundings if they were absolutely foreign to us. Man’s complaint against nature is that he has to acquire most of his necessaries by his own efforts. Yes, but his efforts are not in vain; he is reaping success every day, and that shows there is a rational connection between him and nature, for we never can make anything our own except that which is truly related to us…

The first invasion of India has its exact parallel in the invasion of America by the European settlers. They also were confronted with primeval forests and a fierce struggle with aboriginal races. But this struggle between man and man, and man and nature lasted till the very end; they never came to any terms. In India the forests which were the habitation of the barbarians became the sanctuary of sages, but in America these great living cathedrals of nature had no deeper significance to man. The brought wealth and power to him, and perhaps at times they ministered to his enjoyment of beauty, and inspired a solitary poet. They never acquired a sacred association in the hearts of men as the site of some great spiritual reconcilement where man’s soul has its meeting-place with the soul of the world…

Other Recommended sources:

Forest History: Looking at Pre-History  

Clarence Glacken, Traces on the Rhodian Shore  (1967) — “Glacken showed how past generations contemplated and interpreted the mutual relations between nature and human cultures. ‘After more than a decade of research, Glacken concluded that there had been three major ideas in the history of Western environmental thought: the idea of a divinely designed earth (both ecological theory and the intelligent design argument are direct descendants), the idea of environmental influence on people (similar to the environmental determinism popular in early anthropology), and the idea of human influence on the environment.” (Wikipedia)   

Hatami, H., and Gleick, P. 1994. Chronology of conflict over water in the legends, myths, and history of the ancient Middle East. In: Water, war, and peace in the Middle East. Environment 36(3).

J. Donald Hughes, Pan’s Travail: Environmental Problems of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1996.

John Perlin, A Forest Journey.Countryman Press, 2005.

Water Conflict Chronology List,

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