Fire: the spark to civilization

Fire: the spark to civilization

Fire has been intertwined with human history long before the dawn of time and continues to be one of the most important parts of our lives today. Whenever we start up the stove, light a match or candle, we produce one of the earliest tamed beasts that we, modern Homo sapiens, have acquired on our course of becoming one of the most successful organisms on the planet. The taming of fire sparked the creation of modern civilization, and differentiated our ancestors with other ape species that coexisted 1 million years ago. I agree with many scientists that the success of the Homo sapiens’ expansion across the globe laid primarily in the fact that our ancestors mastered the way to conjure, at our will, one of nature’s greatest forces.

Scientists have always disagreed on the exact time period when prehistoric hominid species, possibly not just Homo sapiens, started to regularly utilize fire as a tool in daily life. This information is crucial to the understanding of the development of Homo sapiens because the use of fire indicated an improvement in cognitive processing that distinguished humans from other organisms. So far, overwhelming evidence has shown that prehistoric hominids have indeed began to use fire in hunting, processing food and clearing land for migration or agriculture long ago. As Ponting noted in ‘A Green History of the World’, prehistoric humans used fire to clear millions of acres of forest and grassland for hunting, which possibly contributed to the extinction of the mega fauna that once roamed the planet. He interestingly suggested that the act of forest clearing indicated that our ancestors, even before the development of modern technologies, have already begun the process of manipulating the environment around them. Evidence showed that the burning of grasslands facilitated the spread of forests both in the Americans and Europe, while the burning of forests generated a human-imposed selection process that favored certain tree spices over others. Furthermore, by using this additional selection process, prehistoric humans already selectively promoted the growth of those tree species that they found to be most useful, and drove other tree species to extinction.

In my opinion, the mastering of fire should be investigated from two levels: tending and creating. Tending fire should be seen as the easier component of the two, since tending only required prehistoric humans to find the location of a wildfire, transfer the flames safely back to the group, and keep it burning for a period of time. The ability to not fear fire, and instead, to try and utilize fire as a useful tool showed a big jump in human cognitive thinking. While most animals run away from a burning tree, our ancestors walked in the opposite direction and tried to control it.  Not only did our ancestors overcome their nature instinct to flee from fire, but also had to develop techniques to transfer and maintain fire.

According to McCrone in ‘Fired up’, tending fire must have been the top priority for prehistoric hunter-gathering societies as it provided multiple benefits such as warmth, longer preservation of food and protection against predators. As the tending of fire took up a tremendous amount of time and effort, the process of maintaining the flames possibly spurred the first examples of role-specialization within hominid societies. McCrone also suggested that the tending of fire led to a higher degree of human cognitive processing because it not only required early hominids to discover and remember the suitable fuels for burning, but also develop complex signaling techniques that facilitated the process of fire tending. These signaling techniques played an important role in maintaining communal fires, and provided a means through which the knowledge of fire tending could be passed down to future generations; in other words, the originations of the human language.

Yet, impressive at is seems, the ability to tend fire alone could not have been enough to support the Homo sapiens’ expansion across the globe because one of major criteria of fire tending required a social group to remain rather situated. This disadvantage would have greatly limited the Homo sapiens’ mobility, since traveling while maintaining a live flame is extremely difficult. Not only would a traveling group have to carry food and necessary tools for survival, but also maintain a constant supply of fuel since the survival of the entire group is dependent upon the continuation of the flames. In addition, due to the rarity of naturally occurring fires, it would make more sense for the humanoid groups to remain in the same region once natural fire is obtained because the area must also have the adequate fuel sources. The reliance on fire probably caused humanoid groups to seek secured shelters that helped to sustain burning, but reduced the group’s desire to travel. Although it is not hard to imagine prehistoric hunter-gathering groups following natural wild fires out of Africa, the rarity of such fires would have greatly limited the survival of these hunter groups once they venture into the colder regions and therefore a more reliable way of obtaining fire would prove to be crucial.

I believe that the real dawn of modern Homo sapiens should have been the instant when humans discovered the way to create the spark. Up to this point, sparks only occurred naturally from sources such as a lightning strikes or volcano activities. These natural sparks had to happen at exactly the right place and the right time (mainly striking on a inflammable surface in an area with lots of fuel), which made wild fire a rather unreliable. By being able to create a spark, Homo sapiens were able to break free of the mobility constraints with fire tending, and travel ever-farther distances away from Africa into Europe and the Americans. As long as Homo sapiens controlled the spark, they were able to conjure fire anywhere and anytime, which helped to explain our ability to flourish during and after the Ice Ages 10 thousand years ago.

The skill to reproduce the spark should be the second defining moment in the development of the modern brain, since it required human beings not only to remember how to maintain fire but also to memorize the right materials and techniques to create the spark. Interestingly, evidence that all cultures in the world originated from a common ancestral root can be seen in how people from different cultures produce fire. No matter where we travel, what culture we encounter, the way of creating fire are always similar: either through flints or friction. Homo sapiens might have come a long way since their migration out of Africa, yet one thing remains the unchanged till modern day: the art of creating fire.  


Fired up. McCrone, John, New Scientist, 05/20/2000, Vol. 166 Issue 2239, p30, 5p, 2 maps, 10c

The Long Burn. Stephen J Pyne, Whole World. San Rafael:Winter 199., Iss 98; pg 6, 8pgs

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last updated 1/25/10