Early Humans: Fire, Climate, and their Environment

Thomas K. Madore


Paleanthropologists have long debated the origins of the first tamed fires and have had relatively little success in determining who actually started them: Homo erectus or Homo sapiens. Until recently, the most commonly held and accepted belief was that Homo erectus was incapable of such an accomplishment, primarily because they were considered inept and even branded “as no more than a smart ape.” (McCrone, New Scientist, 20 May 2000, p. 33) Moreover, Homo erectus did not fit into the ‘gospel-like’ big-bang theory of evolution that technologically refined humans came into being a mere 40,000 years ago with the “development of grammatical speech.” (McCrone, 30) The time period of this big-bang occurrence is well after the termination of the erectus on earth, given that Homo sapiens, the humans with the first modern skeletons, were found about 100,000 years ago.
However, new findings by several reliable sources suggest that Homo erectus may in fact have been the first of our ancestors to tame the flames. For example, a team of researchers, led by Jack Harris of Rutgers University, discovered tools and skeletons of Homo erectus at multiple campsites in Kenya, dated around 1.6 million years ago, with consistent evidence of “lens-shaped burned patches,” (McCrone, 31) indicative of campfires. To Harris, these findings are more than legitimate. They seem to describe how Homo erectus was able to accomplish mobility and keep warm in the evening in certain regions to which they migrated, or even in this location of Kenya. Moreover, “Harris believes that even discounting the many other possible benefits of fire, such as cooking, preserving meat, smoking out game, hardening wooden tools, or driving away biting insects, its control would have been critical to the way Homo erectus managed to break out and start to move around the world.” (McCrone, 31) This aspect of fire as an enabling agent for migration to different areas of the world seems to make sense in that about one and a half million years ago Homo erectus began to venture outside of Africa. (Ponting, A Green History of the World, p. 26)
While Homo erectus may in fact have used fire to keep warm at this early date, more sophisticated use did not develop until around 400,000 years ago when hearths were commonly discovered in Europe. As Ponting alludes to in his piece on “A Green history of the World,” Europe’s climate was particularly cold and harsh, even during interglacial periods, which suggests that the use of fire was essential for survival. Throughout early human history, climate variations such as these greatly affected the manner in which humans interacted with their environment. In this scenario, the environment hindered Homo erectus’ ability to hunt and gather (since agriculture did not come into the picture until about 10,000 years ago) which is the reason that serious permanent settlement did not occur in Europe until “the last, long glacial period that began about 80,000 years ago and lasted till about 12,000 years ago.” (Ponting, 27)
However, the use of fire in terms of the relationship between early humans and their environment was not merely for humans to protect themselves from the elements. For example, as Ponting mentions, “Australia was settled about 40,000 years ago at a time when sea levels were at their lowest and when a voyage of about sixty miles would have been needed.” (Ponting, 29) Interestingly, two reports on the National Public Radio station recently aired two broadcasts suggesting that “recent studies seem to indicate that Aborigines in Australia may have actually contributed to a climate change some 50,000 years ago. If proven it would be the first solid evidence that technologically-primitive humans could alter the environment.” One of the reports, “Australian Anthropogenic Climate Change,” spoke of a study of a gigantic crater, over a half mile long, known as the Wolf Creek Crater, in which anthropologists are digging up sediments in hopes of discerning whether or not humans did in fact drastically affect Australia’s climate. Presently, researchers, led by Professor Miller of the University of Colorado, abound with convincing evidence regarding parallels that appear to exist between the time when humans arrived on the continent (according to these studies, around 50,000 years ago) and the perceived drastic changes in climate around this time period.
For instance, it is noted that around the time when humans arrived, Australia became dramatically drier, and monsoon rainfall weakened around the same time. Researchers speculate that burning may have altered the vegetation landscape and caused both this decrease in monsoon rainfall and the disappearance of 85% of the mega-fuana (larger scale animals) of the continent. The decrease in monsoon rainfall has to do with the notion that the biosphere transfers moisture to the atmosphere—rainfall is a ‘two-way street.’ That is water falling to the ground is recycled back into the atmosphere by the transpiration from leaves. Hence, the deliberate burning of areas of trees would reduce this transpiration process, and contribute to not only the lack of rainfall, but also the possible alteration in mix of plant life. Additionally, researchers believe that the dramatic decrease in the population of mega-fuana was no the result of ‘overkill’ on the part of humans, since there has been no evidence of mass animal slaughtering in the examination of their bones. Nor was it the result of farming, since forms of agriculture did not mature (as previously mentioned) until much after this later than 50,000 years ago. Moreover, natural climate changes were not an issue in the disappearance of animals either since the last glacial maxim was about 20,000 years ago, 30,000 years later than population change occurred. Rather, the climate was temperate and steady, and had been for thousands of previous years. It is therefore believed that these burning activities severely destructed the forest habitat, which these animals depended on to live. (NPR, Australian Anthropogenic Climate Change
Ultimately, fire, during this time period, was a tool which early humans used in order to improve hunting, by a method of ‘smoking out’ their prey in order to make it easier for them to hunt. Moreover, this sort of burning supposedly helped encourage the growth of edible plants (perhaps an extremely primitive form of farming.) Simultaneously, this method, perhaps inadvertently, destroyed animal’s natural habitat. In essence, the use of fire in this manner seems to have drastically altered the climate of an entire continent. If this hypothesis is true, and it seems that it is, it is a wakeup call to modern humans who clear forests today that the pushing of Mother Nature to the extreme can trigger climate change. (NPR, Climate Change) Moreover, (seemingly) stark reality highlights an important idea formulated in class discussion on Thursday, January 30, that humans may or may or have survived if they did not modify their environments in a destructive manner using the technology they had at the time. In essence, fire was obviously a key technological development and proved quite necessary for early human’s survival in the environment as well as the overall evolution of humankind. Nonetheless, the progress, comfort, and practicality it offered did not come without serious repercussions, the extreme form of which is complete climate alteration.

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last updated 2/22/03