Monday, June 20, 2016
Fire: A Brief History
We live in a perplexing era. On one hand, we are the most brilliant critters that ever existed. On the other hand, we are knowingly destroying the ecosystem upon which our survival depends, which sane folks might see as the opposite of brilliant. You and I descend from ancestors who, once upon a time, lived in balance with the family of life. What happened?
Obviously, the industrial era has supercharged our eco-impacts. The stage for the industrial era was set maybe 8,000 years ago, by the transition to agriculture, animal domestication, and civilization — a sharp turn away from low-impact living. Was this our turning point? Some think that we began to drift away from original harmony much earlier, maybe 30,000 to 50,000 years ago, with a Great Leap Forward, which brought complex language, innovative new tools, cave painting, body decorations, rituals, etc.
A few scholars have suggested that if space aliens had visited Earth 100,000 years ago, our ancestors would have appeared to be nothing more than ordinary animals. For a long time, I accepted that. Now I don’t. I’ve been reading the work of Stephen Pyne, a scholar who has written 25 books on fire history. He provided an introduction to his knowledge in Fire: A Brief History. Those visiting space aliens would have noticed that one species — and only one — maintained fires in their encampments. This behavior was not the slightest bit ordinary.
By learning how to preserve and manipulate fire, our ancestors acquired great power, far more power than they acquired from wooden clubs or chipped flint spearheads. Fire eventually enabled them to colonize the entire planet. Pyne says, “Without fire humanity sinks to a status of near helplessness, a plump chimp with a scraping stone and digging stick, hiding from the night’s terrors, crowding into minor biotic niches.”
My home, food, and belongings were created by machines that operated on domesticated firepower. Without firepower, this city and civilization would not exist; the place I live would be a healthy forest in a vast wilderness. If our ancestors had not acquired firepower, humans would still be living close to the tropics, and the Americas might be unknown continents.
Long, long ago, our early hominid ancestors frequently provided nice warm meals for the hungry leopards and hyenas that visited in the night. Man-eating predators greatly benefitted our kin by helping them avoid embarrassing population explosions. But on one quest for a yummy midnight snack, the hungry man-eaters were shocked when the ancestors began brandishing flaming torches and yelling discourteous suggestions. Antelopes never did this!
Swartkrans Cave is near Johannesburg, South Africa. It has been carefully excavated. At the oldest lower layers, no charcoal is found. It is an era before domesticated fire. At this level, there are complete skeletons of big cats, and the scattered gnawed bones of the critters they ate, including hominids. Higher up, charcoal is found in newer layers, the age of fire. Here we find complete hominid skeletons, and the scattered bones of the critters they gnawed, including big cats. With fire, hominids had taken over the cave, and the prey had become predators.
Fire requires three things: heat, oxygen, and fuel. From very early times, maybe a billion years ago, heat was available in the form of lightning and volcanoes, but fuel and adequate oxygen were missing. Modern levels of free oxygen emerged by 500 million years ago, but there was no fuel. With the arrival of land plants by 400 million years ago, biomass was born, and fire became possible.
In the early days, our Homo erectus ancestors captured fire from lightning strikes, and very carefully preserved it. If the fire ever went out, the unlucky brothers and sisters began to smell like cat food. Later, some genius learned how to kindle fire, a revolutionary innovation. There were three types of fire starters: the fire drill, the fire piston, and the fire striker. The first friction match appeared in 1827. Today, even slobbering tykes can easily burn down the house.
Every day, there are eight million lightning strikes. When a bolt hits fuel that is not soggy, a fire can start. Pyne refers to this wild natural fire as First Fire. Second Fire is fire that has been domesticated by humans. It blazes under our control. Some regions have abundant biomass fuel, and other regions barely have any. The amount of Second Fire that could exist at any time was always limited by the amount of biomass available.
Third Fire is the flame of industrial civilization, and it has given us the diabolical power to create countless catastrophes. The fuel it consumes is fossil biomass. Coal is rainforest vegetation that accumulated over the course of 60 million years. Oil and natural gas come from dead phytoplankton that accumulated over 250 million years. Of course, they are nonrenewable and finite. We will rubbish the planet’s ecosystem before we can burn all of them (but we’ll try!).
There has never been more combustion on this planet than now. We are burning enormous amounts of sequestered carbon as fast as humanly possible, and this is overloading the planetary ecosystem with staggering amounts of pollution — greenhouse gasses, acid rain, toxic ash, etc. “Since the present is often unable to absorb it, the outflow spills into the future,” says Pyne. “We have had the impact of a slow collision with an asteroid.”
Third Fire powers the machinery that mines the ore, crushes it, smelts it, rolls it, delivers it, stamps it, welds it, and creates automobiles and countless other daffy mistakes. The controlled fire in engines doesn’t care about the weather. It can burn in the desert, the rainforest, the arctic, in planes, and at sea. We simply turn the ignition key, and the engines fire up. Third Fire enables the production of almost every manmade artifact in our lives.
I’ve just scratched the surface here. Pyne has spent a lifetime writing about the subject that fascinates him. Fire enabled cooking, which makes food easier to digest, neutralizes toxins, and kills bacteria and parasites. Fire was used to drive wild game animals into confined locations where hunters waited.
Early agriculture began on treeless floodplains, where a digging stick and seeds were all that was needed. As our numbers grew, we ran out of mudflats to thrash. So, we invented slash-and-burn to transform vast regions of ancient forests into additional cropland and pasture. Nobody knows more about the history of slash-and-burn than Pyne.
In eighteenth century North America, the eastern portion of the Great Plains was tallgrass prairie. On average, Native Americans fired this region every three years, to eliminate brush, and maintain excellent grazing habitat for the bison herds. The tallgrass prairie had soils and climate that were perfectly suitable for forest. When the Indians were obliterated by the diseases of civilization, they quit burning, and the forest expanded.
Agriculture encourages population growth, and its shadow, conflict. For thousands of years, demented nerds have invented countless new ways of using fire to kill people. Both ships and settlements were flammable, and fire was an excellent weapon for turning them to ashes. For several thousand years, there has been an accelerating nonstop arms race to discover new and improved ways for barbequing enemies and innocent bystanders.
In the old days, towns were often surrounded by defensive walls or palisades. Inside, wooden structures were packed closely together, and each contained hearths with open flames. Often, when one structure burned, many burned. Russian villages typically burned every 20 to 30 years. Cities have always been fireplaces. After every immolation, the survivors built a new collection of highly flammable buildings. Pyne suspected that the Christian concept of a fiery hell was originally inspired by the firestorms common in that era — horror!
It’s a short, well written, mind expanding, unforgettable book.
Pyne, Stephen J., Fire: A Brief History, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2001.