Environment

How Fire Made Us Human

Wherever there are humans, there is language and fire.

OUDTSHOORN, SOUTH AFRICA - JULY 2: Bushmen display inside the famous Cango Caves in the Swartberg Mountains. 2 July 2013 in Oudtshoorn, South Africa
Photo Credit: Andrea Willmore / Shutterstock.com

What would life be like without fire? That's a question that could be applied to many things we often take for granted.

Even today we burn natural resources as a way to produce energy, and we burn fuel to propel our vehicles through the land, air and sea. Think about it:

  • Our electronics run on energy produced via fire.
  • We prepare and preserve food with fire.
  • We manufacture millions of products each day with fire.
  • Farmers scorch and renew the earth with fire.
  • We mold and shape the world with fire, from industrial manufacturing to simple decorations.

It is a timeless and unlimited commodity. You might say we use fire to shape the world around us, but it is fire that has truly made us human. Fire is, without a doubt, the source of our humanity.

Lighting a trail to our origins

Wherever we have gone in the world, we have carried two things with us: language and fire.

Recent discoveries show that the oldest evidence of firemaking in Europe dates back roughly 800,000 years, when prehumans living in southeastern Spain lit controlled fires in caves. This has led scientists to believe that early members of the human genus have been using this resource for at least a million years.

Fire shaped our nutritional intake and diet

In our earliest days, we consumed food in a raw state like many animals. It was the only option at the time. Like animals, our digestive and immune systems were accustomed to the parasites and bacteria because it was a natural part of the human diet.

Raw food

But eating raw food took considerable energy. That uncooked cuisine took longer to chew and break down, resulting in humans spending hours each day chewing. We see this in primates and other animals who spend great lengths of time chewing and breaking down raw foods, especially plants, so they can be more easily digested.

Cooked food

Scientists believe the early harnessing of fire contributed to the unprecedented increase in brain size hominids experienced more than 1.8 million years ago—a change that would have required a substantial caloric and nutrient-rich intake.

We know that fire changes the density of nutrients and carbohydrates in food once cooked. Research has shown that only a fraction of calories from raw foods are absorbed by the body, whereas the body gets roughly 30 percent more energy from cooked oats, wheat and starches and as much as 78 percent more from sources like the protein in eggs. Animals who consume cooked food gain more weight than animals fed the same amount of raw food.

Fire's impact on brain development

The majority of calories we take in are used to power the primary and secondary functions within our bodies, especially brain development. While at rest, the brain uses nearly a fifth of your energy.

When humanity began harnessing fire for food, there was less time spent on chewing (less energy) and a higher caloric intake meant a greater amount of nutrients and energy could be devoted to brain development.

Expanding on mankind's quality of life

As early humans began to manipulate and control fire, they experienced changes beyond diet; they began to understand how to use this blaze to improve their quality of life.

Fire brought protection to mankind

Fire brought people down from the trees, using its light to deter nocturnal predators who stalked prey from the protection of the darkness. It allowed humans to expand civilization along the ground, a process that contributed to the evolution of bipedalism.

Fire brought endurance to early humanity

The use of fire also brought warmth to Homo erectus. They could thrive in cooler environments and had to rely less on furs. Without these heavy garments, early people were able to learn to run faster and longer. This, along with higher caloric intake providing extended energy, expanded their ability to hunt prey without exhausting themselves.

Fire evolved community and had lasting cultural impact

We enjoy a campfire with friends or a gathering around a fire with family to share stories and roast smores or share food. These are the same activities early humans performed around fire that led to cultural evolution.

Fire extended our days and became the focal point for social interaction and social traditions.

It promoted harmony and equality among tribes and sparked primal people's imaginations, helping them envision a larger sense of community both with distant people and the spirit world. Fire became a source of bonding, both emotionally and spiritually.

Gathering around fire and cooking shaped the social relationship between men and women, between hunters and gathers. From the division of labor to sexual intimacy and communication, all things revolved around food and fire. Men focused on hunting, while women took to gathering and cooking; this led to the eventual division of gendered labor and our practice of sharing food or providing for one another as a collective community.

Fire has always been the source of our humanity

By day, there was a great deal of work to be done; this is something that hasn't changed for hundreds of thousands of years.

But at night, humanity settled. The productivity available during the day would cease. No work could be done. As fire was harnessed, the human race's circadian rhythms adapted. People stayed awake longer and shifted their activity to something more social. Stories were told, conversations developed and the gathering around fire influenced the cognitive education and imagination of mankind.

Humans did not invent fire, but over the course of a million years, we have learned to harness and control it. We used it for cooking and for staying warm. It influenced language, social structure and communication. Over time, fire led to the manufacture of tools both in trade and in war, as well as innovations in industry and technology.

The way people harnessed fire and heat was nuanced and no less sophisticated than the way we employ it today. Fire has become a prominent and permanent part of who we are.

Despite all the advances in our technology, fire is deeply ingrained in our lives. Even today, we find solace, comfort and bonding in fire. Like our ancestors more than 800,000 years ago, we apply it and take control of it within our homes. Ultimately, we come together to share stories and warmth around the same rippling flames that shaped our world and made us human.

Sources

This article was produced by Angie's List.

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Tyler Burchett is a writer covering environmental and energy issues.