Fire: a milestone in human history
Man’s prosperity has been closely linked with fire, presently, and even half a million years ago. Although we may not encounter the flame directly in our everyday lives, our energy, in terms of supporting transportation, communication, production of goods, and operating machinery, is heavily dependent on fire. We burn fossil fuels to produce electricity, without which we would be sent back into the stone age. But even in that period, fire was considered one of, if not the most important aspect of human life. It was the first example of man’s dominance over an extremely powerful force of nature and it paved the way for future exploitation of nature’s resources.
There is controversial evidence regarding the first instance of man’s ability to use fire. Many argue that even the homo erectus species, our prehistoric ancestor, was able to use fire and thus show it to be a more developed species than had previously been thought. Others, however, claim that it was only the homo sapiens who had the ability to create and utilize fire, and thus show it to be the far more superior and advanced species than our hominid ancestors. “There’s no strong evidence of fire use until about 300,000 years ago and none definitively associated with H. erectus” (Ancient Chinese Fires). Despite this it is still worthy of noting that the hominid species was able to recognize and utilize the advantages of fire, even it was kindled naturally by lightning or wildfires. Great priority was given to tending fires and ensuring it remained ablaze, as it would then be used for a multitude of purposes. Initially, fire was used in clearing land for hunting purposes, as thick undergrowth in forested areas was removed to make it easier for hunters to spot game and successfully bag it. This was a major example of pre-historic humans drastically changing their environment and consequently altering the natural equilibrium of the ecosystem. For example, certain tree species in the forests were well adapted to fire, while others were not, and thus the latter of these tree species rapidly declined. “If fires are frequent and regular enough, vegetation adapts by shifting towards species (pyrophytes) that can regenerate after a fire or even withstand it” (Williams Ch 2).
As human populations increased, and the focus shifted to agriculture, fire was used for mass clearing of land, resulting in the loss of habitat for many species. In areas where forests were cleared, the entire ecosystem would change and the region could have transformed for example into a grassland. In other cases, as mentioned previously, when fire was frequently used in forests, opportunistic tree species would thrive, resulting in the forest being concentrated with only one or two types of tree spieces. This has been linked to the extinction of mega fauna, and how humans have had a ratcheting effect in the sense that they have both directly and indirectly affected various species (classroom discussion). Hominids hunted mega fauna but also manipulated the environment, for example by burning natural habitats, such that these species were not able to adapt to the rapidly changing environment. It was the combination of both direct and indirect actions taken by prehistoric humans that led to such an intense selective pressure on the mega fauna species which were not able to cope, and ultimately led to their extinction.
As hominids improved their ability to tend fire, they incorporated its use in almost every aspect of life. Fire was used in cooking and heating, and indicates a drastic change in the way pre historic humans consumed food, as they switched from eating food raw, to cooked, which preserved the food longer and also made it more tender. Fire was also used to create or improve tools, a relevant example being wooden hand axes that were hardened by burning the edges of the axe (Fired Up). The use of fire spread so rapidly, and became so intertwined in everyday life, that even though Hominids were unable to produce fire, their heavy dependence on it since its discovery is irrefutable.
The ability to tend fire warrants great praise, and is a huge step in the evolution of prehistoric humans and their cognitive development. However, the ability to create fire is a milestone in human history and is one of the main features that distinguishes Homo Sapiens from Homo Erectus. Igniting a fire requires intimate knowledge of materials, and the ability to understand and utilize frictional forces to create a spark that is then fueled into a substantial flame. It is a clear indication of massive cognitive and intellectual development that had not been witnessed in our prehistoric ancestors. The main advantage of creating fire, initially, was that it allowed humans to travel to colder regions of the world, such as Northern Europe, where fire would be essential in providing warmth. Our Hominid ancestors were, in a sense, trapped or isolated in their geographical location because nature did not permit for them to roam freely without suffering the consequences of harsh environments. Even though Hominids had knowledge of how to keep a fire ablaze, migrating while being dependent on a lit flame was far too risky. Furthermore, they would have to constantly fuel the flame and this would require a great amount of attentiveness as well as having to carry large amounts of materials for fuel, in the event that fuel sources were not readily available while travelling, which was a logistical nightmare. The ability to create fire was, metaphorically, a hammer that broke the chains which had withheld our species from exploring this world.
As fire became the dominant force wielded by early humans, the environment changed rapidly, in most cases negatively. However, one possible effect of fire may be the pinnacle of human development and is what we predominantly use to define ourselves as humans today. This is the possibility of fire being the key factor in the birth of language and thus culture. When individuals in a cold climate are forced to remain in close proximity around a warm fire, the probability of social interaction leading to more advanced means of communication is extremely high (classroom discussion). Only through continuous and repetitive social interaction could means of communication develop to the extent of language being created. When individuals sit together and have nothing better to do than just pay attention to one another, the chances of them improving communication techniques is extremely high and was most likely the case. “Fire is needed to fuel the organ that makes possible all the other products of culture, language included” (why fire makes us human). I believe that man’s relationship with fire should always be given great importance. Fire can be considered a technology in its own right, in the sense that it enabled humans to perform a number of functions, in terms of travel, obtaining food, etcetera. It is my opinion however, that the greatest benefit man has reaped from fire is language, the msot effective means of communication. This formed the foundation for vast cultural development and a societal structure that is similar to the present day’s. We can therefore understand why fire is given such cultural importance, even today, and is a key element in many religious faiths and ideologies. It is considered a source of purification, atonement, cleansing and sacrifice. Fire is therefore a mile stone in human history, not only because it drastically changed the way of life as a technological advancement, but because it was a stepping stone to modern civilization and society.
Fired Up (John McCrone) Page 3, paragraph 1
Williams Chapter 2, Page 16, paragraph 2
Ancient Chinese Fires, Page 1, paragraph 3