For the most part of their evolutionary history, humans have been nomads and hunter-gatherers. This lifestyle changed very little from the dawn of the species around a million years ago up until around 10,000 years ago, when the advent of agriculture allowed them to produce their own food and settle down.
To be specific, humans are grassland species adapted to the life in African Savannah. Since we’ve so recently descended from our Stone Age ancestors, our bodies and minds are essentially evolved for life in the Stone Age.
A strong evidence for this is the universal preference of humans for Savannah-like features in their environments.
Gardens as Mini-Savannahs
Throughout the world, people prefer an environment that has short grass, few trees and shrubs, gently rolling hills, and some standing water. These are features of the Savannah grasslands.
People throughout the world prefer to cultivate gardens in their front yards that replicate the Savannah. The grass is kept short and a few trees along with shrubs are grown here and there.
Visit any city in the world and you’re likely to find gardens and parks as major tourist attractions. However, the most important feature of the Savannah-like environment is the presence of a source of water such as a lake or a river.
A beautiful garden with a beautiful fountain is the epitome of aesthetic experience for many. People gravitate to lakes and rivers which tend to be centers of recreation throughout the world.
|The Mughal Gardens surrounding the Dal Lake are major tourist attractions in Srinagar, my hometown.
Ask any person to draw scenery of nature and they’re likely to draw a river or a lake regardless of other land features they might add.
The preference for Savannah-like features is strongest in children, which explains why children love playing in parks so much. Schools and other educational institutions are incomplete without a children’s park or a general park for students to sit down and relax.
The strong preference in children for Savannah-like environments also suggests that it’s an inborn preference instead of a learned behavior. As one progresses through life, one may develop preferences for other types of environment, perhaps due to positive experiences they might have had in those environments.
Still, these preferences may not necessarily override their inborn preferences.
The most likely explanation for why we have such inborn preferences for Savannah-like features in the environment is that our ancestors who had such preferences were more successful reproductively than those who didn’t have such preferences.
Hence, these preferences are etched into our genes.
‘Short grass and few trees’ means one can look clearly over large distances and therefore easily locate prey and predators. Rolling hills also provide this benefit.
Where there are short grass and a source of water, there are likely to be grazing animals that can be prey for humans.
Tall grass means less visibility and a reduced ability to detect dangers such as predators. It also enables predators to hide effectively.
When chased by predators our ancestors could run and climb the few trees that were available in a given piece of Savannah land. These trees also provided shade and firewood.
We humans lose water on a constant basis through activities such as urination, sweating and even breathing. Therefore, the presence of a source of water is critical for our survival. Besides, it also provides an opportunity to fish and to cool off and cleanse the body.
It’s not a coincidence that almost all major ancient civilizations were river valley civilizations.
When people arrive at a picnic spot and find there’s no water source anywhere near them, they’re hugely disappointed. Without fun in the water, an excursion is incomplete.
Orians, G. H., & Heerwagen, J. H. (1992). Evolved responses to landscapes.
Bridgeman, B. (2003). Psychology and evolution: The origins of mind. Sage.