Why Does It Matter Who Controlled Fire First?

Sierra Spencer

Controlling fire was a turning point in the history of mankind (“Microstratigraphic Evidence of in Situ Fire”). However, it is still largely disputed when this turning point occurred and which species of early humans were the ones to initiate this drastic change in the course of history. The timing of when humans first controlled fire is widely disputed, with claims of evidence of controlled burns ranging from 200,000 to 1,000,000 years ago. Such a wide range means that the species of human to first control fire is also disputed. Earlier evidence of controlled burns would suggest that Homo erectus had fire, which contrasts the widespread belief that Homo sapiens were the first to have fire. Because of the implications that fire had on an individual, population, community, and ecosystem level, it is important to know who was the first to control fire and when.

There is no consensus on the first confirmed case of controlled fire in early humans’ history. One school of thought supports the theory that fire was first tamed by H. erectus 500,000 years ago in Zhoukoudian, China, where there is evidence of burned bones (“Ancient Chinese Fires” 165). Even further back into the time of H. erectus, some believe that there is evidence of controlled fire 700,000 to 800,000 years ago in Gesher Benot Ya’akov in the Jordan Valley in present-day Israel (“Microstratigraphic Evidence of in Situ Fire”). Others claim evidence that fire was first controlled over 1,000,000 years ago in South Africa, where excavations at Wonderwerk Cave have revealed burned bone and plant remains. It is debated, though, if the bones and remains found at each of these sites were burned naturally or are proof that H. erectus controlled fire. On the other hand, some scholars believe that H. erectus never mastered the flame, and argue that the first confirmed case of controlled fire was not until 200,000 to 300,000 years ago, when H. sapiens had already emerged on the scene (“Ancient Chinese Fires” 165).

The individual dynamics of H. erectus are largely influenced by whether or not the species ever controlled fire. H. erectus is considered a short-term minded species, with a “15-minute culture” that does not look well beyond basic needs for survival (“Fired Up” 34). Without much forward thinking, H. erectus is perceived to be a relatively stagnant species that did make any significant technological advances for much of its existence. For example, it is believed that H. erectus used the same hand axes for daily life for over 1 million years (“Fired Up” 32). Proof that H. erectus controlled fire would challenge the low level of innovation attributed to their species and would redefine our perceptions of these early humans’ way of life. With a more accurate idea of the innovation of H. erectus, we can gain a better idea of what else the species was able to accomplish during their reign on Earth.

Additionally, nutrition is a crucial link in understanding the individual dynamics of early humans. Human nutrition greatly changed once fire was controlled; cooking meat reduces the amount of energy required for digestion, and therefore opens up calories available for other functions, such as developing intelligence and making technological advances. This suggests that humans beginning to cook their meat would be followed by a huge leap in innovation (“Cooking and Cognition”). Therefore, knowing which species was the first to control fire offers a window into the cognitive function of early humans.

Control of fire also had implications for the population dynamics, which are interactions between individuals within the same species. Fire would have had a large impact on the population size of early humans (Class Discussion). With the increased nutrition available from cooked meat, fire could support a population growth. Fire would also increase security by providing warmth and warding off predators, both of which would foster a larger population. Therefore, knowledge of which species was the first to control fire offers insight into the density and size of early human populations.

In addition to increasing the size of the population, control of fire would promote more interactions between individuals. Prior to use of fire, there may have been some advantages to associating with other individuals of the same species, such as food availability or security from predators. Fire would create conditions that make it much more favorable for early humans to band together. Especially early on, when fire was more rare and highly desirable, strategies of building and maintaining fire were still primitive; individuals would have needed to stick together for access and maintenance of this precious resource. Fire therefore shifted population dynamics from being a collection of individuals to more of a community among early humans.

One of the results of increased group dynamics among early human species could have been language. Fire created a reason for early humans to sit around in groups, which would have fostered communication. With hunting and gathering taking up only a portion of the day, early humans would have been left with a lot of time to sit by the fire and develop communication for purposes such as story-telling. Fire particularly promoted group dynamics at night, when early humans might have otherwise been forced to seek shelter for protection from elements or predators. With a way of now lighting up the night, humans could spend more time interacting, including developing language. Language completely revolutionized the way of life and shaped the course of history. Therefore, knowing when fire was first controlled may offer insight into this other key development in population dynamics that shaped human evolution.

One school of thought exists that the male/female relationship was also impacted by the control of fire. The theory follows that cooking meat created the sexual division of labor of men hunting and women cooking the meat and gathering other food. Since women were put in vulnerable positions by tending to cooked meat, a highly valued resource, and were physically weaker than men, women evolved to pick one particular male to protect them. In return, the female would secure this particular “protector” with meat. This created a strong bond in the male/female relationship that is still in tact today. The school of thought also views this as the origin of male superiority; since women were in need of protection in their position of vulnerability, men became more dominant in society (“Evolution by Fire”). However, the sexual division of labor could have been created much earlier. Although cooked meat may have intensified the effects, the hunter/gatherer system would have already developed when early humans were eating raw meat. Before cooking, however, women were not harboring the meat, and would have not been in as vulnerable of positions. Therefore, knowing when fire was first controlled may offer insight into the development of the modern-day male/female relationship and division of labor.

Control of fire also gives insight to early humans’ community dynamics, which are defined as interactions with other species besides humans. Control of fire would have given either H. erectus or early H. sapiens huge advantages over other species. Many of the factors that improved individual and population dynamics, such as increased brain function and communication, widened the gap between humans and other species. The ability to control fire marks a significant distinction between humans and other species, and knowing if H. erectus ever controlled fire could tip the scale towards defining their species as more similar to H. sapiens or to their primate ancestors.

These shifts in individual and population dynamics gave humans a greater advantage in hunting, and could have contributed to humans’ ability to overhunt. The widened gap between humans and other species could have also allowed for the domestication of certain animals. Therefore, control of fire gave humans greater control over other species, and knowing when this occurred is key to understanding how humans interacted in their communities.

On the largest scale, controlled fire affected the ecosystem, which includes interactions with both biotic and abiotic factors in the environment. Control of fire allowed early humans to live in new areas that were previously too cold to be hospitable. In particular, early humans could now live in higher elevations and migrate north into Europe and Asia (“Fired Up” 31). Control of fire could also increase tolerance of colder regions through the increased nutrition and muscle mass that humans acquired once they were able to cook their meat. The type of environment lived in can shape humans’ genes by causing adaptations to certain conditions (“Early Human Culture”). Therefore, knowing where a species was capable of living at a given time is important in assessing genetics and understanding human evolution.

Control of fire also determined how early humans were able to impact their environment. Once humans controlled fire, they quickly would have seen the effects of large-scale fires. Perhaps at first unintentional, large burns were ultimately manipulated for more efficient hunting and creating a more favorable landscape. Large-scale fires changed the make-up of trees and vegetation in an ecosystem. Burning forests cleared trees or altered the types of trees that were able to live in an area, creating grasslands or forests of more fire-resistant species of trees (“Fire and Foragers” 30). The Aboriginals of Australia are infamous for drastically altering the natural landscape of their territories due to the use of sustained burnings. This in turn shaped the other species that were able to survive in the more fire-resistant conditions. Some even believe that these man-made changes to the environment are what caused the extinction of Australia’s megafauna (“Did Fire Kill Off Australia’s Megafauna?”).

In conclusion, the implications that control of fire had on each biological level makes it important to know when this major development in history occurred. On the individual level, fire had the capacity to classify and significantly increase the cognitive function of any species that controlled it. Control of fire was also a strong indication of when the human population could have increased in size and developed group dynamics, and as a result, language. Community-wise, fire widened the gap between whichever species of humans controlled it and all other species. On the ecosystem level, fire determined how humans were able to alter their environment. The significance of controlled fire at each biological level increases the need to prove one way or another if H. erectus ever controlled fire, and to assess the proposed evidence of controlled fires in locations throughout the world.

Works Cited

Berna, Francesco, Paul Goldberg, Liora Horwitz Kolska, James Brink, Sharon Holt, Marion Bamford, and Michael Chazan. “Microstratigraphic Evidence of in Situ Fire in the Acheulean Strata of Wonderwerk Cave, Northern Cape Province, South Africa.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 20th ser. 109 (2012): n. pag. 4 Feb. 2012. Web. 12 Sept. 2016. http://www.pnas.org/content/109/20/E1215?tab=author-info.

Bowman, David. “Did Fire Kill off Australia’s Megafauna?” The Conversation. The Conversation US, Inc., 29 Oct. 2013. Web. 16 Sept. 2016. http://theconversation.com/did-fire-kill-off-australias-megafauna-19679.

McCrone, John. “Fired Up.” New Scientist 20 May 2000: 30-34. New Scientist. Web. 5 Sept. 2016.

Nixon, Robin. “Cooking and Cognition: How Humans Got So Smart.” Live Science. N.p., 11 Aug. 2008. Web. 7 Sept. 2016. http://www.livescience.com/2764-cooking-cognition-humans-smart.html

O’Neil, Dennis. “Early Human Culture.” N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Sept. 2016. http://anthro.palomar.edu/homo/homo_4.htm.

Shaw, Jonathan. “Evolution by Fire.” Harvard Magazine. Harvard Magazine Inc., Nov.-Dec. 2009. Web. 12 Sept. 2016. http://harvardmagazine.com/2009/11/cooking-and-human-evolution.

Williams, Michael. “Fire and Foragers.” Deforesting the Earth. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2006. 14-36. Deforesting the Earth. Web. 4 Sept. 2016.

Wuethrich, Bernice. “Geological Analysis Damps Ancient Chinese Fires.” Science Magazine 10 July 1998: 165-66. Science Magazine. The American Assocation for the Advancement of Science, 28 Jan. 2003. Web. 5 Sept. 2016.


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