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News Release

August 10, 2004

Exploitation of rock shelters ‘biggest story never told,’ says U of G prof

Why are penthouse apartments the most coveted and expensive? Where did bedbugs live before there were beds? Why do cathedrals instill us with a sense of awe? A new book by members of the Cliff Ecology Research Group at the University of Guelph shows that the answers to these questions can be found in the use of rock shelters by humans throughout our history.

The Urban Cliff Revolution argues that cliffs and rock shelters have played a vital role in the origin, evolution and development of the entire human habitat. The authors, botany professor Douglas Larson and research associates Uta Matthes, Peter E. Kelly, Jeremy Lundholm and John Gerrath, conclude that we are primitive species as dependent on cliffs and rock shelters today as we have been for the past million years.

“The seeds of the concrete canyons, urban centres, suburbs and farms of our own creation were sown a million years ago,” said Larson. “As far as we can tell, we’re the first ones to put the entire story together showing the broad array of effects created by people having exploited rock shelters. It’s the greatest story never told.”

Throughout human evolution cliffs and their associated rock shelters, caves, and scree slopes provided safe refuge from harsh natural environments, including daytime heat, frigid nights, competitors and predators, he said.

The development of cities can be traced from the consistent use of rock shelters and caves to their subsequent modification and eventually to the construction of free-standing buildings.

“When humans started making dwellings, we copied the features of caves,” said Larson. “Locations we prefer today, like corner offices or a penthouse apartments, have the same qualities that were found more desirable in the rock shelters of our ancestors. The human sense of beauty and fear is based in part on our evolutionary past, so we built cities to recapitulate the best rock shelters that we ever lived in.”

The book shows that people were not the only ones using these rock shelters. “Roughly half of the species around us are specialists of steep rocky habitats,” said Larson. “There’s something about the nature of rock that attracts both the creatures we hate – like cockroaches, bedbugs and rats – and the things we can’t live without, like most of our food plants.”

As cities grew and cave use diminished, the species that had been human companions in the rock shelters saw a new opportunity, he said. “They followed us to cities and farmland because for them these properties represented perfect copies of natural habitats. What emerged was a well-integrated community of opportunists: pigeons, mice, cats and dogs, bedbugs, onions, dandelions, hawkweeds, rhubarb – the list is long and includes almost every familiar plant and animal that we find all around us in modern cities.”

The book also argues that people retain an evolutionary-based spiritual attraction to cliffs to the point that much of modern architecture reiterates those aspects of rock shelters that make us feel the most comfortable and safe. “We are still a species that seeks rock shelters but we're not aware of it,” said Larson. “Our technological arrogance ought to be tempered with the awareness of this surviving primitiveness.”

Douglas Larson
Department of Botany
(519) 824-4120, Ext. 56008, or

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