These days, fire is used for virtually everything. We use it for warmth, light, hunting, foraging, cooking, stimulating movement, generating electricity, forging, ritual, communication, water filtration, cultivation, signaling, and burial. Can't imagine life without fire? Well, when did fire first emerge, and how did fire change the arc of human evolution?
Language and flame are the two things that mankind has taken with them everywhere they have traveled on earth. They salvaged the precious embers of earlier fires and shielded them from rainwater as they roamed tropical jungles. They brought the memory of fire with them when they entered the arid Arctic, and they recreated it in ceramic vessels laden with animal fat. Darwin ranked these two advancements as the two greatest contributions made by humans. Of course, it is difficult to envision a human society without language, but might there be a prehistoric culture that survives without cooking given the proper climate and abundant access to raw, fresh wild food? In essence, no one like that has ever been located.
According to a startling notion put out by Harvard biologist Richard Wrangham, fire is vital to power the human brain, which is the organ that enables all other cultural artifacts, including language. Therefore, keep this in mind the next time you find yourself daydreaming while staring at a brilliant, glowing fireplace or even a solo candle light: Being mesmerized by fire may have catalyzed the evolution of the human mind.
Fire control changed the course of human evolution. It’s well-known that fire enabled the survival of early humans by providing warmth as well as a means to stay warm, cook food, ward off predators, venture into harsh climates, and forge better weapons. Furthermore, research on cognitive evolution, a domain that integrates psychology, anthropology, neuroscience, and genetics, reveals that the most noticeable impact of fire on humans was the way our reactions to it changed our brains, granting us capacities like long-term memory and problem-solving. Furthermore, it had tremendous social and behavioral connotations, encouraging individuals to socialize and stay up late.
The earliest concrete evidence ties Homo sapiens and Neanderthals to the early management of fire. It was unearthed at Israel's Qesem Cave and dates all the way back 300,000 to 400,000 years. But now, a group of archaeologists from around the globe have identified what appear to be the vestiges of campfires that flared 1 million years ago. The evidence, which includes charred animal bones and burned plant remains, originates from South Africa's Wonderwerk Cave, where humans and early hominins had lived for two million years. In essence, archaeological data suggests that Homo erectus, who appeared almost two million years ago, was the first to wield fire in a controlled manner. It's possible that opportunism played a role in the initial stage of human interaction with fire.
For those early hominids, a fire would have functioned as a useful source of heat and illumination at night in addition to scaring off predators and keeping insects at bay. John Gowlett, an archaeologist at the University of Liverpool, argues that this innovation also dramatically modified the way our brains manage time. Our ape relatives spend the entire evening inactive or napping in nests after the sun sets. But the arrival of artificial daylight permitted the intellect of human ancestors to adapt and mature to the point where modern humans can stay up and active for more than 16 hours per day.
The capacity to control fire seems to fall into place for us as humans today. But we must avoid being arrogant. The nature, magnitude, and frequency of wildfires are drastically changing as a result of the expansion of non-native grasses like Gamba grass in Australia and Cheat grass in North America, as well as a warmer environment. It would be prudent for us to realize that fire has played a significant role in the evolution of Earth for millions of years and will do so long after we are all gone.
Anyways, that's it for today. Please make sure to follow the podcast (Evolution Unraveled) for more compelling tales of evolution, and tune in for the next episode!
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