Human Alteration of the Environment through Fire

Kearney Bangs


Hominids developed skills to use their environment advantageously. As this ecological knowledge increased, so did the prosperity of man. The environment was abundant in products that could aid in the life of hominids. As they begun to learn how to use these assets, they evolved into the smartest animals on earth, Homo sapiens. No other animal could have tamed fire; as Williams said in Deforesting the Earth, “fire was the first nonhuman force incorporated into human society, and one of the key features that distinguished humankind from the rest of the primates.”(15).

Whether it was Homo erectus or the later Homo sapiens that first tamed fire, the process dramatically changed their lives 1. The power of fire could not have been overlooked, even by the earliest of hominids. The most obvious benefits are that of its ability to scare wild animals, warmth, and lighting. It is completely possible that hominids were able to use natural fires to create their own. Remains of hearths have been found dating back to possibly 465,000 years ago. These fires would have been carefully maintained and could have lead to communication and culture. If hominids were tending a fire, they could have been talking about the next day’s hunt, ways to keep the fire alive, and making tools.

The earliest, strongest evidence of the making of fire by man dates back 300,000 years (Wuethrich, 2003.) With this control of fire came the ability to burn forests for numerous economic gains. “With fire humans accomplished the first great ecological transformation of the earth” (Williams, 15.) The humans had a monopoly with fire and could affect the biosphere, making the world more habitable for them. By burning, they could encourage the growth of certain edible plants such as: “grasses, forbs, tubers, wild fruits, wild rice, hazelnuts, sunflowers, cama, bracken, cassava, and blueberries” (Williams, 16.) Through the burning of forests, they could increase visibility for hunting by creating open areas in the forests and the clearing of undergrowth. A less dense forest enabled hunters to find their prey easier and safer. Also, burning of the forests would have forced the animals to retreat to a known place making the hunting process even easier. In the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the most important aspect was food, so anything that made it easier to acquire food was used. Also, because of their roaming tendencies, life was able to regenerate, minimizing their effect on the environment. But, from 16,000 years ago to 10,000 years ago, there was a massive decline in large mammals and the extinction of many genera around the world. Scientists have postulated the cause of this to be climate change and over-hunting by man (Williams, 20.) But I agree with Williams in that it seems humans had an effect on the environment because of their widespread use of fire.

Fire enabled hominids to travel to colder climates, and therefore inhabit more of the earth. As the human population increased (which is due in part to fire and its ability to provide more food and land, and its use to cook food, decreasing food borne illness) settlements began to form, especially with the onset of agriculture 10,000 years ago. Groups staying in one place had a grave effect on forests. Through the continuous burning of forests, humans eventually created desertification in the areas they inhabited. In the Americas, the first European explorers commented on the numerous plains across the lands comparing them to parks back home. The Native Americans also created savannas, barrens, prairies, and deserts by frequent fires (Williams, 21.)

Polynesian settlements in the Pacific Islands serve as a possible example of the reasons for the extinction of large animals 10,000 years ago on the mainland. Polynesians first settled on Easter Island around 400AD. There was very little on the island to sustain them. The only crop that they brought with them that was able to grow was sweet potatoes. They were also successful with raising chickens. The food labor was not demanding, enabling the inhabitants to build huge stone statue heads. They would transport these statues by pulling them on logs across the island. With this use of timber, the building of canoes and houses, and the use of fire to clear forests, complete deforestation of Easter Island occurred around 1550AD. The loss of moisture from the forests dried out the soil, inhibiting crop and plant growth. The humans had to return to primal living because of the absence of wood (Pointing, ch1.)

In New Zealand, Polynesians settled around 900AD. The Maoris’ main source of food was the Moa, a large flightless bird. To hunt these large birds, the Maoris would set fire to the forests causing them to retreat to places where the Maoris could kill them easier. It is said that the Maoris destroyed half of the forest on New Zealand and drove the Moa to extinction by the time the Europeans colonized the island (Williams, 21.)

More recently proof has been found that points to Aborigines in Australia as being the cause of the extinction of mega-fauna 50,000 years ago. From their arrival, it seems Australia had become dryer because of fires disrupting the monsoon rain cycles. The fires also changed the habitat for the mega fauna, disrupting their food source and shelter (NPR, 2000.)

Knowing what we know today, I don’t think it’s possible for an event such as Easter Island to happen again on a major scale. But instances of deforestation on Easter Island, New Zealand, and Australia and their proven effects on climate makes me think humans could have had a large effect on the extinction of many animals through deforestation. If it was possible for mankind to completely destroy the forests of the world, could we create a “tech-fix” (technical invention to solve the problem)? But more importantly, I wonder, would we be satisfied with a tech fix in replace of a forest? As I watch my nature screensaver on my energy using laptop, I wonder if I would want to live in a world without forests, not just if I could. Seeing a forest and being in a forest are completely different. We have come a long way from our ancestors who first tamed fire. We fight forest fires, not allowing natural fires to spread. Agriculture and domestication of animals made hunting unnecessary, eliminating the use of fire for hunting. But, as suburban areas are expanding and the demand for lumber rises, more forests are being destroyed. I don’t want to see the disappearance of forests. For my sanity, I need nature.



1.) Look at the articles debating when humans first discovered fire. "Geological analysis damps ancient Chinese fires," Wuethrich, Bernice; Science 07/10/98, Vol. 281, Issue 5374, p. 165., Short article: "Did Homo Erectus tame fire first?" Balter, Michael; Science 6/16/95, Vol. 268, Issue 5217, p. 1570.

Megafauna Extinction. National Public Radio

Aboriginal Climate Change. National Public Radio

A Green history of the world: the Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations. Clive Ponting; St. Martin's Press, 1992. Ch. 1.

Williams, Michael, "Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis" (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2003) pp. 3-36.

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last updated 2/6/07