Fire and early humans

Fire and early humans

As we enjoy summer, it is easy to forget how reliant we have been, and still are as a species, on this most important natural element.

There is some evidence that suggests humans were using fire some 1.9 million years ago. Stronger scientific evidence supports that at least 400,000 years ago, early humans had learned to control fire to their advantage.

The control of fire by early man showed a big change in cognitive thinking. Instead of fearing fire, they attempted to use it to their advantage.  Fire would have occurred naturally, although randomly, through volcanic activity, lightning strikes and possibly other means. Yet these random blazes would have been more likely to make life difficult rather than easier for early human species.  Wildfire would have destroyed their environment and food sources, in an unpredictable and deadly manner.  Once humans were in control of this element, they were able to bring about great changes in the course of humankind. 

In a controlled manner, fire would have been useful in many ways.  First, it would have helped to preserve freshly-killed meat, prolonging its useable life.  Cooked complex carbohydrates like potatoes, previously inedible, could now be consumed, where previously they may have been tough and possibly even poisonous.  Scientists have hypothesized that this change in diet contributed to the increase in human brain size, and the decrease in tooth and jaw size.

Of course the biggest impact was that fire would have provided warmth, and allowed human activity to occur after dusk.  Furthermore, controlled fire would have been incredibly useful for warding off predators, as well as bugs and biting insects. 

It is thought that through this tending of fires, the need for various roles within the community came about.  Much like today, there would be roles for those who knew the best types of fuel, those who gathered the fuel, and those who maintained the fires.  

All of this would have called for a natural sharing of such crucial information from one group to another.  Thus, communication in an organised forum must have taken place. This was socialisation and knowledge-sharing in its earliest form.  We can, in short, deduce that the collection and control of fire from naturally occurring sources would have taken some planning and organisation, teaching us much about the developing cultures of early man. 

Once humans had learned to create their own sparks, they were once again free to roam the globe, continuing their worldly expansion. There is thinking that this allowed them to migrate across Africa and into glacial Eurasia, meaning they could survive extremely harsh conditions, such as the Ice Age.  Indeed, because of our ability to create fire, and the traces this left (such as stones, bones, ovens, and other burning tools and implements), scientists are to this day, able to more closely study our habits and migration patterns.  

There is much we can learn about our history when we study human interaction with this great element!