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 (McCrone).

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 journeys (McCrone).

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.