Fire As A Cultural Spark: How Advanced Was Homo erectus?

Elizabeth Crampton

Scientists are certain that Homo erectus was one of the first hominid species with a distinctively large brain and the proportions that we associate with modern humans (McCrone, 30). There is also evidence that this early species of humanity spread throughout Asia and into the Northern latitudes from Africa (Wuethrich, 165). However, what is not certain is the degree to which these humans could manipulate their environment.

              The most significant evidence of Homo erectus’s cognitive ability is their tear-drop shaped flint hand axes, which suggest that Homo erectus deliberately searched out a specific kind of rock and then shaped it into a particular model, matching it to some vision within their head, rather than merely picking up the nearest blunt object (McCrone, 32). These efforts suggest that Homo erectus did have some thinking and planning abilities that enabled them to more fully affect the area around them but some scientists are still skeptical about the true depth of Homo erectus’s cognitive abilities. However, recent studies have unearthed new evidence that suggest that fire might have been manipulated by humans as late as 1.6 million years ago, pushing the mastery of fire out of the hands of Homo sapiens and into the realm of early Homo erectus (McCrone, 30).

To be able to use such an advanced and powerful tool, however, Homo erectus’s brain must have been much more developed than late twentieth century theories suggest. The “Big Bang Theory” states that technologically advanced humans only evolved 40,000 years ago with the development of grammatical speech, which enabled the human brain to conceive of symbolic relationships and thus develop a culture that is recognizably modern; thereby relegating all other species of hominid to the status of bi-pedal apes (McCrone, 30). If the more recent studies are taken into consideration, however, Homo erectus might be able to move up a few more rungs on the social evolutionary ladder.

The first evidence of early hominids using fire came from a cave in South Africa, when Raymond Dart discovered a series of blackened animal bones near the remains of a 3 million year old hominid. The blackness was later determined to be mineral stains, however, the Victorian sensibilities of the 1940s meant that scientists were anxious to push back the connections between modern humans and apes as far back into history as possible (McCrone, 30). Therefore when the “Peking Man” was discovered in Zhoukoudian, China more than 50 years ago, surrounded by burnt bones and what appeared to be a hearth, scientists did not bother to fully investigate the site until the beginning of the 21st century (Foley). Once biologist Steve Weiner of the Weizmann Institute for Science in Rehovot, Israel and his collogues arrived at the site, however, they soon discovered that the bones that were present could have easily been burned as a result of natural causes and all of the evidence that had normally accompanied the deliberate use of fire up to this time was absent. The lack of hearths, ashes, and certain chemical signatures associated with fires meant that there was no longer any clear cut evidence at this site for Homo erectus’s use of fire. The only other evidence of Homo erectus’s fire tending was only about 300,00 years ago, thereby re-enforcing the principles espoused by the Big Bang Theory, although it still pushed their estimates back much further than most scientists were willing to accept (Wuethrich, 165).

However, while the former proof of Homo erectus’s fire making abilities was shown to be false, even stronger evidence for Homo erectus’s use of fire was found in Kenya at Koobi Fora, which not only showed that Homo erectus had been able to take advantage of fire but they had in fact been doing so for 1.6 million years (McCrone, 30).

In the 1970s and 1980s, scientists discovered the bones and stone tools of Homo erectus near 10 “lenses” of earth about a half a meter wide and 1.6 million years old. The significance of these areas was not made clear, however, until Jack Harris from Rutgers University finally made the connection between these mysterious circles and the campfires of local people. Both shared the same pattern of lens shaped burned patches and thus provided evidence that Homo erectus had deliberately created campfires. Moreover, later studies by Randy Beliomo of the University of South Florida used archaemagnetism to show that the Koobi Fora campfires had a variety of magnetic orientations, as if the iron had been re-melted more than once, each time re-aligning itself with the Earth’s wandering magnetic poles, and thus proving that the sediment had been relit regularly over the course of a few years (McCrone, 32).

Critics continued to claim that these patches could have been a result of any number of natural causes; however, Ralph Rowlett of the University of Mississippi-Columbia has used thermoluminescent dating to show that the radiation of the ground in question has been reset by some sort of thermal cause, thereby eliminating any theories that stated that the patches were a produce of either a fungus or a type of mineral staining. Rowlett was also able to eliminate any question of a lightning strike by providing evidence that proved that in the event of a lightning strike there would have been lumps of fused earth, know as fulgerites, and a pit the size of a coin rather than a half-meter. Beliomo then determined that a bush fire only burned at around 100 degrees Celsius, while the melted crystal at the edges of the lenses had been burned at about 400 degrees Celsius. The evidence continued to mount in Homo erectus’s favor as Rowlett determined that the microscopic silica deposits, which remain in an area long after ash and other evidence of fire disappears, were the remains of palm wood stems and tissues; a plant that is used to this day to light fires in Africa, thereby suggesting that Homo erectus deliberately sought out this wood because of it’s bright flame and quick kindling time (McCrone, 32-33).

While the veracity of this site has been fairly well established, the most startling study has come from Brian Ludwig of Rutgers University, who has signs proving that Homo erectus was consistently using fire for a long time, even in sites where there is no evidence of fire use. He found that many of the basalt and quartz tools that were used by Homo erectus also have small “pot-lid” fractures on their surface as if they had been exposed to intense heat, equivalent to that of a campfire. Moreover this consistency is only seen after 1.6 million years, the same period that the Koobi Fora site proposes that Homo erectus adopted fire for their own use (McCrone, 33). Yet despite this evidence, scientists are still unwilling to give up the Big Bang Theory, which is also challenged by 400,000-year-old sites of later groups of Homo erectus throughout Europe, easily identifiable through their hearths and burnt bones.     

            Clive Gamble of the University of Southampton is able to reconcile the conflicting ideals of scientists by proposing the idea of a “15 minute culture” (McCrone, 34). While Homo erectus was able to mechanically go through the steps of producing something very practical, it would quickly be discarded as soon as its immediate purpose had been fulfilled. It took the invention of language for these activities to become imbued with elaborate rituals, which then provided the pressure cooker of inspiration and thus technological innovation. Therefore because Homo erectus remained technologically stagnant throughout their dominion, it could be argued that the Big Bang Theory is still valid, even if Homo erectus was able to create and use fire for their own benefit (McCrone, 34).

            However, while there maybe be a huge gulf in between using fire for warmth and to intimidate large predators and gathering around a fire in order to engage in communal activities such as singing and story telling, it doesn’t change the fact that Homo erectus was able to innovatively make use of the environment around them. If Homo erectus hadn’t been able to harness fire as an effective tool, they would have had much more difficult time confronting the cold northern climates and the predators that lived there as they began to explore new ecological niches. Homo erectus didn’t need modern culture when they decided to migrate out into the rest of the world, they only needed fire and so that’s what they brought with them. So whether or not Homo erectus’s society fits our standard of modern culture, they still chose to manipulate their environment to its maximum capacity, which makes them seem quite human to me. 


Works Cited

1. Foley, Jim. "Peking Man." Fossil Hominids: The Evidence of Human Evolution. 28

Apr.1997. 5 Feb. 2006 <>.

2. McCrone, John. "Fired Up." New Scientist 20 May 2000: 30-34.

3. Wuethrich, Bernice. "Geological Analysis Damps Ancient Chinese Fires." Science

July 1998: 165-166. 28 Jan. 2006.

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