The Domestication of Fire

Ross Weller

            In this first paper, I would like to explore the impact that the domestication of fire had on subsequent advancements in human civilization.  Fire has been described as “the first nonhuman force incorporated into human society” (1) and its innumerable applications have played no small part in the history of civilization.  Beyond fire’s implicit uses, the behavior humans must have exhibited in taming fire would have proven helpful in subsequent domestication.  This first success laid the way for Man’s continued mastery of his environment.

            The popular imaging of the discovery of naturally occurring fire is of the primitive Man pulling a branch from a lightening struck tree.  I believe that this event is feasible but unlikely as a source for “domesticatable” fire.  Once a fire has burned through a section of forest (and our “caveman” had a chance to grab a branch), it is unlikely that another fire will come through for some time.  This is not because “lightening never strikes the same spot twice” but instead is because the previous fire would have burnt up most of the ready fuel in the area.  From the little I know of natural fuel build-up and unnatural fuel build-up, a track of forest that has never had a fire suppressed will normally only burn off its grasses, leaf piles, deadfalls, and brush.  There would not be trees burning for days as we see in modern forest fires in our western states- although there is evidence of stumps being completely consumed in ancient forest fires(2).  Venturing into the recently burned or still burning forest is a risky behavior in any case.  Primitive man acquiring his fire from a lightening struck tree would have most likely have had only one chance to discover how to perpetuate the flame before the wild flame disappeared.  This situation would instill a desire to domesticate fire but is not necessarily ideal for an extensive amount of trial and error to take place.

            Naturally occurring fires are created in other instances besides lightening-struck trees.  Volcanoes and combusting of pockets of fossil fuel (e.g. coal seams) would create long term, reliable sources of fire.  Regularly or constantly erupting volcanoes created by a spreading apart of the earth’s plates are most common on oceanic islands (the “ring of fire” in the Pacific), which were colonized fairly late in Man’s history- making them an unlikely resource in early fire domestication.  Coal seam fires, on the other hand, are fairly widespread around the world (3) and can burn for decades.  These fires are sparked by forest fires or spontaneously combust due to built-up heat and pressure.  While their occurrence is more frequent today than in the years before industrial mining, there is evidence dating coal seam fires back to the Pliocene era (4)- the period associated with arrival of Homo erectus onto the world’s scene. 

While I can only speculate into the matter without tangible evidence, coal seam fires provide an alternative model to forest fires as Man’s early source of fire and one that allows for frequent “re-tries and re-lights”.  Rather than requiring the subtleties of fire management be learnt through chance, a nearby coal seam fire would allow development through attrition (the “Edison method” of invention).  It must be said that, with evidence supporting Homo erectus using fire (2), the earliest evidenced coal seam fires may very well be the result of hominid-set fires rather than their source (if hominids had fire, fire would be more prevalent on earth and the likelihood of a coal seam igniting would be higher- thus explaining the immergence of coal seam fires in Pliocene). 

Whatever its first source, domesticated fire would have caused immediate changes in the life of its possessors.  As fire was ‘captured” before it was made by hominids, tending the fire would have been an important occupation from the outset.  The most similar task to feeding and sheltering a fire that hominids would have undertaken would have been rearing infants.  Either one member of a group would have been responsible or all the members would have shared responsibility for maintaining the fire.  Tending fire must have represented one of the first examples of either specialization or of cooperation.  The warmth of the fire would have drawn groups of hominids together and many anthropologists have expressed the opinion that time spent around the fire at night created the condition conducive to the development of speech.  Fire would have increased the amount of light available for work on any given day- this extra time could be used for innovations.  Fire-sharpened sticks and fire-hardened bones are among the earliest improved tools.  In addition, the difficulty of moving a fire successfully probably lead to more stationary camps, places where group members would return each night to sleep and eat.  This would have increased the cohesion and, in turn, the complexity of the group dynamics. 

The first eating of fire-roasted food was likely the scavenging of animals killed in a forest fire and of burnt grasses, but it would have been the use of domesticated fire for cooking would have had a serious impact on the human diet.  Cooking would have increased the range of items that humans consumed.  Plants that were not digestible uncooked and meat that was unsafe raw due to pathogens would must have represented a considerable source of new calories.  This change in food sources had an impact on the fossil record of hominids:  Homo erectus came to have a smaller jaw and Homo sapiens to have smaller teeth than their predecessor, changes likely due to the transition to a diet of cooked food (2).  Smoke from fires would have repelled insects and thus preventing some diseases.  Fires would have served as a deterrent against large predators.  The flight reaction most animals employ in reaction to fire would have likely been recognized and incorporated into efforts to drive game animals.  It is easy to imagine the transition from running with a torch while driving prey to using that torch to create a wall of fire to trap the animals.  It is at the point when hominids began to purposefully create ground fires that the much later transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture first becomes possible. 

The first use of fire-cleared ground may have been a continuation of the theme of repelling predators and insects.  Living in a patch of cleared ground would increase the range of visibility around the camp, giving increased warning of approaching predators and rival hominid groups.  The absence of high grass and brush would decrease the prevalence of parasitic and pathogen-carrying insects.  Fire-cleared forest would have allowed “more productive and safer hunting” (5) by improving visibility as well as the density and distribution of game. 

The semi-permanent camps centered around fires and fire clearings would have led to the first creation of waste and scrap piles.  Food plants likely sprouted in these nutrient rich areas, providing a basis for the concepts of both planting and fertilization.  The first successful plantings most likely took places in fire-clearings and, as agriculture became more prevalent, more forest inevitably would have been cleared by further burnings.  The behaviors inherent in tending fires (providing feed/fuel, cooperating, remaining in a stationary camp, and undertaking long-term planning) would have been beneficial in the subsequent acts of planting crops and herding animals.  The domestication of fire provided a model, as well as much of the means, for further domestications of wild elements into Man’s way of life. 

  • 1- Clearing in The Deep Past   Williams Chapt.2 p.15
  • 2- The New Scientist  May 20 2000  Fired Up  McCrone
  • 3-
  • 4- Terra Nova  Vol. 16 Issue 2  Dating of coal fires in Xinjiang, north-west China

Xiangmin Zhang, Salomon B. Kroonenberg, Cor B. de Boer

  • 5- Williams Chapt.2 p.17

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last updated 1/25/06