Fire


**How?** Why?**


Read the following selection on the discovery of fire and answer the questions:

3 points each

1 How is it thought that the fire was discovered ?

2 What are the methods by which it is thought that early humans were able to start a fire whenever they wished ?

3 Why was fire such an important discovery ? How did it benefir early humans ?

With an ever increasing ability to modify and control their environment, humans found a friend in one of nature's most destructive forces, fire. Traces of fire have been found dating back to nearly one and a half million years ago, however these sites are thought to have been the result of natural fires. The consistent and purposeful use of fire probably began with Homo erectus and was definitely an important part of hominid survival by 400,000 years ago.

How

Early hominids undoubtedly encountered naturally occurring fires often, from lightening, volcanic eruptions, and the igniting of dry, dense underbrush. How then was this natural phenomenon captured and tamed for domestic use? As in the case of the Neanderthal extinction and erectus' migration out of Africa, there is a theory to explain how this happened. It probably all began when somebody brought a lit branch from a natural fire back to the campsite. Such an acquisition had to be carefully maintained for if it went out there was no known way to start it glowing again. For this reason, hearths were closely watched day and night. Examination of living sites reveals that the immediate, warm, circular area around a hearth was probably used for a sleeping area. This conclusion is based on the lack of any artifacts, bone remains or trash in this area.

It is not implausible to believe that early hominids carried lit branches with them when they moved from place to place. Such a practice is still followed by Pygmy groups today.

The next step would be to be able to light ones own fire whenever it was needed. Early man could have done this in several ways, although the sequence of the methods used is unclear.

1) The rubbing together of sticks
2) Chipping flint stones to create sparks which would fall onto hair or dry grass
3) Striking a piece of iron pyrite with flint stone to produce sparks

This last method is believed to be rather recent as evidence of its use has been found in a Belgian cave with a date of only 10-15,000 years old.

Why?

Why would Homo erectus try to capture and domesticate such a destructive, and yet strangely alluring, force? What advantages could be so great that they would be worth the risk? Early man must have found several advantages in the controlled use of fire. Fire provided warmth. This was crucial during the height of the glacial periods. The "discovery" of fire may have been a prime factor in our survival. Many animals, especially those in the wild, are afraid of fire. Therefore, early man could use this discovery as a means of keeping the animals away, especially at night while they were sleeping.

Today the most common use for fire is for cooking. Homo erectus also used fire for this purpose. Cooked food is softer than noncooked food and would have been easier for young children and the elderly to chew. The very powerful jaws of the Australopithecines were now no longer needed and the result was an evolution of our face and cranial structure.

Fire may have also played an important role in the early socialization of man. With extra hours of light available to them, it would not be surprising if this time was spent around the fire, planning the next days hunting expedition, telling stories of a good hunt, and preparing tools. It was during this time when the entire group could come together, that the abilities to communicate and socialize became important factors in our selection process.

Return to the Main Page or continue on to:

Homo erectus
- general overview
Diet and Food
Supply
Environment
Last revised October 16, 1995
b-sklar@uiuc.edu