Last Updated 2/7/03
Primitive Man's Relationship with Fire and the Environment
By Josh Loeffler
Common knowledge holds it that primitive man was a being
barely more developed than the ape, existing without culture, innovation, or
technological prowess. This belief focuses especially on homo erectus, an ancestor
of man who lived from about 2 million to roughly 200,000 years ago. It is commonly
believed that h. erectus was a creature existing in technological stasis, without
the ability to advance his existence through innovation, and void of culture.
This type of thinking could quickly be altered, though, if recent discoveries
hold true. Recent evidence points to a distinct possibility that h. erectus
may have been the first ancestor of man to harness the power of fire. Such a
finding would greatly alter the current system of beliefs in regard to the evolution
of man and the status of man's ancestors during the time of h. erectus. These
findings would indicate that h. erectus did have some culture, and some innovative
skill that allowed him to control his environment. The evidence supporting the
taming of fire by h. erectus is not beyond reproach, though. In fact, it has
come under heavy questioning. A desire for even stronger evidence could eventually
dispel the notion that this primitive version of man could control fire, and
allow for maintenance of the current belief that man did not truly evolve into
a being with any type of culture until the existence of homo sapiens.
Up until the year 2000, a great deal of evidence surrounding
man's use and control of fire indicated that such technology probably did not
appear until roughly 200,000 years ago. The implication that h. sapiens was
the first in the line of mankind to control fire was supported by evidence found
at a site in Zhoukoudian, China. While it had been believed for some time that
Zhoukoudian was the first site of controlled fire, evidence found through more
exhaustive research indicates otherwise. There are no hearths at the site in
China. Nor are there any food remnants. Such evidence leads to the belief that
the burnt bones found at the site are probably the result of a natural fire
(Wuethrich). The lack of strong evidence supporting the site as one in which
man's control of fire is displayed supported the belief that h. erectus lacked
technological prowess and culture.
The next best candidate for the site of man's first documented
control of fire was a collapsed sea cave in Menez Dregan, France. The evidence
of fire at this site was tentatively dated as approximately 465,000 years old.
Electron Spin Resonance (ESR) was used to date quartz pebbles at this site,
which presents one of two problems. ESR can accurately date up to 500,00 years
ago, which is dangerously close to the date of the cave being investigated.
In order to prove that the site is truly this old, the age of the quartz must
be verified. Also, as was the case in Zhokoudian, the artifacts that indicate
mankind created the fire must be shown beyond a doubt to have been the product
of h. erectus (Balter, p.1570). While proof of such things is very difficult,
successful indication would be cause for a rethinking of h. erectus's culture,
technology, and interaction with his environment.
Evidence from a site in KoobiFora in Africa is the most
distressing to those who believe strongly that h. erectus was not a being with
technology and culture. Burn patches dated between the ages of 1.4 to 1.6 million
years old have been found in this region of Africa, a time period occurring
at the very beginning of h. erectus' existence. Accompanying these burnt patches
are tools and burnt bones, evidence that leads some anthropologists to claim
that the fires were man made (McCrone).
This evidence alone was considered inconclusive. Critics
pointed out the lack of ash, stones, and food remnants. These critics suggested
that the lack of such evidence indicated the distinct possibility that the fires
had simply been caused by nature. Stronger evidence was found though, leading
many to conclude that the fires could not have been created by nature.
Crystalline melting at the sites was found to have occurred
at around 400 degrees Celsius, as opposed to the 100 degree Celsius melting
found at the average bushfire. Also, there were many different elements in the
burnt patches, indicating that the sites had been revisited and relit. Unless
bushfires had occurred repeatedly at the same site, the evidence here points
to man made fire. Even more convincing is the existence of multiple plyoliths
at the site of the fires. This evidence runs contrary to the findings at the
site of a naturally occurring fire. Fires that occur in nature tend to have
evidence of only one plyolith. The dominant plyolith at this site in Africa
was palm wood. Palm wood is still one of the most preferred woods for a fire.
The dominance of this type of plyolith along with the existence of others indicates
the distinct possibility that the fires in Africa were created by h. erectus
There still remain many critics of the site in Africa.
It is held that in order to make such an important claim, there must be even
more decisive evidence. There still remain several questions, such as why there
is no trace of a hearth, and whether or not the sites could have actually been
carved by water (McCrone). The evidence that h. erectus created these fires,
though, is stronger than ever seen before. A finding of such magnitude would
be cause for a drastic reconsideration of the culture of h. erectus, and his
interaction with the environment.
As opposed to the current popular belief that h. erectus
was incapable of technological innovation, the existence of these fires would
indicate that this primitive man was more intelligent than originally thought.
From such evidence, it can be extrapolated that h. erectus was intelligent enough
to have constructed a technology that permitted for greater safety, eating,
and warmth. Such a technology would support the belief that h. erectus was a
hunter-gatherer, rather than a scavenger as some would have everyone believe.
The technology of controlled fire would help explain the expansion of this primitive
man across the globe, as it would have provided safety and warmth during its
There are still those who state that the control of fire
does not mean that h. erectus was a being with a culture worth admiring. In
fact, the lack of permanent tools and such points to the insinuation that h.
erectus had, at best, a 'fifteen minute culture." It is believed that,
at best, this culture was disposable, and did not evolve to a point worth truly
mentioning until the introduction of language (McCrone).
Upon the introduction of language, mankind took its first steps toward becoming a cultured civilization. The introduction of language would have turned the fire into something that simply cooked food into something around which conversations were held. Though the introduction of language and a more permanent culture seems to be more noteworthy than the simple harnessing of fire technology, simple control causes us to rethink our prior assessment of h. erectus. If this being could control fire, it leads to the belief that this version of mankind was much more intelligent that originally assumed, and therefore had a different relationship with the environment. Further investigation into the subject can only reveal more telling facts concerning the intelligence of h. erectus. Such investigation should be welcome, as it can only advance our understanding of primitive man's involvement with his surrounding world.