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Domestication of Fire
Before hominins learned how create fire, they very carefully preserved the flames of a naturally caused fire by feeding it fuel. Burning sticks could be taken to other locations and become the source of additional fires. Folks were extremely careful to preserve the live embers because, if they ever went out, the unlucky brothers and sisters might begin to smell like cat food.
Once upon a time, in an African wilderness, we aren’t sure when, someone figured out how to conjure a dancing flame into being. Whoa! In the hominin saga, that first glowing ember was the equivalent of an asteroid strike — a big one. It catapulted our ancestors outside of the family of life, and into a spooky new realm of supernatural power and danger. It was the magic ring that gave our ancestors the ability to eventually become the dominant animal on Earth (for a while).
Unfortunately, the powerful magic was not delivered with warning labels attached. The gift box did not include powerful herbs and potions to inspire profound wisdom and godlike foresight. No animal needs these abilities. Hominins are animals. The Great Spirit apparently had a mischievous sense of humor.
The four elements are earth, water, air, and fire. Pyne perceived the first manmade fire to be an act of staggering ecological audacity. Tropical primates had found the keys to the mastery of fire. Good grief! The event is reminiscent of the old Sorcerer’s Apprentice tale, in which a half-clever trainee recklessly conjured a hurricane of big magic that he was powerless to stop, which soon got totally out of control.
Without domesticated fire, hominins could have remained perfectly sustainable tropical primates, like baboons. With fire, we acquired an impossible responsibility to use it with flawless wisdom, generation after generation, wherever we went. The ancestors of baboons effortlessly lived sustainably for several million years by simply living like baboons — brilliant! When hominins domesticated fire, they lost the magnificent inherent stability that comes from simply being ordinary animals, like all the others.
Some scholars have speculated 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. Those visiting space aliens would have noticed that one species — and only one — maintained fires in their encampments. This practice was not the slightest bit ordinary. Hominins were the only animals who could deliberately ignite or extinguish a fire. By and by, when hominins go extinct, so will domesticated fire, and the monsters it conjured into existence.
Paleoanthropologists and archaeologists have endless screechy arguments about the dates when prehistoric changes happened, like the domestication of fire. Pretty much, everyone agrees that it happened at least 400,000 years ago, and the most likely suspect was Homo erectus. Others point to two million year old ashes in the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa.
The Swartkrans Cave near Johannesburg is a special site. Many years of assorted stuff has built up on the floor, and the crud has been carefully excavated. In the oldest layers, no charcoal is found. It is an era before fire. At this level, there are complete skeletons of big cats, and the scattered gnawed bones of the critters they ate, including more than 100 individual hominins. In this era, cats were the top predator. Higher up, charcoal is found in newer layers, about 1.6 million years ago, the age of fire. Here are found complete hominin skeletons, and the scattered bones of the critters they gnawed, including big cats — hominins were now the top predator.
Today, a growing number of scientists think it’s time to announce the end of the Holocene Epoch (from 11,700 B.P. to now), and declare the arrival of the embarrassing Anthropocene Epoch. Epochs are time periods in geologic history that leave behind a layer of residue that is unique and recognizable. Carboniferous was the coal era. Jurassic was the era of petroleum and natural gas. The Anthropocene is the era when humans conquered the Earth, and unwisely initiated massive and irreversible change.
If you ever want to start a bloody fistfight at a bar full of scruffy drunken scientists, ask this: When did the Anthropocene begin? Some say 1945, the dawn of the nuclear age. Some say 1800, the kickoff of the Industrial Revolution. Some say 8000 B.C., the Agricultural Revolution. Paul Shepard thought that the game changer was the Hunting Revolution, when hominins learned how to make and use deadly stone tipped javelins and lances, hunt in packs like wolves, kill too many large animals, and feed their energy-guzzling oversized brains with highly nutritious grass fed organic meat. Ronald Wright called this transition “the perfection of hunting,” the first progress trap (a difficult to undo “advance”).
James Scott thought that the good old days ended with the domestication of fire. In his mind, the nightmare world we live in is the result of four domestications — fire, animals, plants, and humans. Domesticated fire, like livestock, required breeding, feeding, and oversight to keep it from running away from its master. Domesticated fire was as addictive as heroin, a habit impossible to willfully quit. The habit eventually spread around the world. Carleton Coon noted that only a few folks made it into the nineteenth century without becoming fire makers — the Tasmanians, Andaman Islanders, and the Pygmies of the Ituri forest.
Fire altered the traditional food chain. Man-eating predators were intimidated by all-night fires and burning torches. So, fewer hominins were violently killed and eaten. This diminished a population check on our ancestors, which may have disturbed the stability of functional ecosystems. Other checks include disease, starvation, conflict, accidents, and so on. John Reader wrote that, under ideal conditions, if two humans, and their descendants, all had large families, the clan would explode to 4 billion in just 500 years. Man-eating predators are good for us. They weed out the sick, elderly, injured, inattentive, and unlucky. We all feed each other.
Fire kept our ancestors warmer. Humans have three million sweat glands to cool us off in hot weather. In cold weather, the body directs more warm blood to the skin. One thing that struck Europeans about primitive people was that they seemed to be impervious to cold. During his famous voyage, Darwin was surprised to observe natives who wore little or no clothing during bitterly cold weather in Tierra del Fuego.
On the Kalahari, night temperatures in June and July can dip below freezing. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas was with a group of naked San people during a night when their water froze. Their only protection was a kaross — an animal skin wrapped around their shoulders.
Tropical people go naked, like chimps and baboons, because clothes are unnecessary, making them requires work, and pointless work is moronic. Modern consumers waste lots of energy, because much of their sense of “cold” is merely a belief induced by cultural programming. Also, they want to wear shorts and tee-shirts indoors, in the middle of winter. I’ve taught myself to be far more tolerant of cooler temperatures than I was 30 years ago. I wear more layers, and waste far less heat.
Fire enabled folks to survive in regions having extended cold weather. So they eventually expanded into much of the northern hemisphere, previously home to wooly mammoths, sabertooth cats, and many other species of megafauna. By making uninhabitable regions habitable, fire increased the global carrying capacity for the hominin hordes — more territory, more food, more hominins.
Fire was used on a large scale to manage landscapes for more productive hunting and foraging. It was used to drive animals into bogs or streams, off precipices, or into locations where they could be confined and killed. It burned off cover that concealed hidden nests or burrows. Flame was used for optimizing grasslands to attract more game — it consumed dead vegetation and woody brush, encouraging the growth of fresh nutritious green forage. It left behind a banquet of roasted grasshoppers. It discouraged visits from bloodthirsty flies and mosquitoes.
Fire enabled slash-and-burn agriculture (swidden), which replaced forest with cropland. Crops were grown for a year or so, until soil fertility was depleted, at which point another area of forest was slashed down. The depleted fields were left to recover for ten or twenty years, when they were slashed again. After multiple slash-and-burn cycles, the land was rubbished. Daniel Hillel reported that in Indonesia there are more than 39.5 million acres (16 million hectares) of land that is incapable of supporting either agriculture or forest.
Fire has long been used as a weapon of mass destruction during violent conflicts. Cities built of wood often fed the flames of horrific firestorms that claimed many lives. Even in peacetime, structures heated with open flame fireplaces frequently went up in smoke, often igniting the rest of the village. For many centuries, firefighting technology was an ineffective process of hauling buckets of water by hand. Deadly fires were very common, and a great source of fear. The Christian concept of Hell was intensified by the terror of frequent fires in early times.
Fire had a spiritual aspect in every traditional culture. Jacob Grimm mentioned the needfire rituals that were once common in many regions of Western Europe. Every year at the summer solstice, each home in the village let their hearth fire die out. A new fire was kindled into existence by a spinning drill (never flint and steel), and everyone took home a bit of the needfire to light their hearth for the coming year. Often people and livestock were passed through the glowing embers for purification and protection. Fire was highly sacred business. Many old pantheons had fire gods, goddesses, and myths.
Domesticated fire is Earth-shaking super-big juju. James Scott concluded that the accumulated ecological impacts of manmade fire on this planet overwhelm those caused by the domestication of plants and animals.
The domestication of fire kicked open the door to a revolutionary change in the hominin saga — a technology called cooking. Cooking softened and pre-digested food. Ancestors were able to extract more nutrients from each mouthful. Better nutrition facilitated the development of bigger brains. Infants could be weaned sooner when softened food became an option, so births could be spaced closer together. The toothless elderly benefitted from access to soft food. Chewing was less work, so hominins evolved smaller teeth compared to other primates. Also, digestion took less processing, so our guts got smaller, and tummies flatter.
Cooking transformed some foods that had been toxic or indigestible into edible nourishment. By increasing the variety of plant foods we could eat, and the amount of nutrients we could extract from them, it became possible for an area of land to feed more ancestors. Thus, cooking boosted an ecosystem’s carrying capacity for hominins.
Cooking gave us the keys to industrial civilization. Imagine the astonishment when early hominins watched some heavy rocks in the fire turn red and melt into a liquid form. The first smelter was born. Metallurgy gave us the ability to fill rivers with spilled blood, to reduce cities to ashes, and to ravage ecosystems in countless, devastating, and irreparable ways.
The ancestors also learned about cooking clay. They were baking figurines in primitive kilns 25,000 years ago. This knowledge eventually evolved into baking pottery and bricks. Sand could be cooked into glass, limestone into cement, wood into charcoal, water into steam, crude oil into distillates (gasoline, diesel, kerosene, etc.), and on and on and on.