The History of Fire

Fireside tales are an integral part of our history, a place where knowledge was passed on and dreams were conjured. Stories have been shared around fires for centuries from myths and fairy tales to fables and facts. So kick back and get cosy at your fireside today as you learn about the wonders that started with a spark.

The exact timing of the discovery and use of fire by humans has been a subject of continuing research and, as yet, is undecided. What we do know it there is scientific evidence that it happened somewhere between 1.7 and 2.0 million years ago. Fire is one of the most important forces on Earth. The use of fire by humans has long been considered as a defining property of intelligence, separating us from other animals.

Fire control changed the course of human evolution, allowing our ancestors to stay warm, cook food, ward off predators and venture into harsh climates. It also had important social and behavioral implications, encouraging groups of people to gather together and stay up late. Here we look at the history of fire and how over the millennia human kind has learnt to harness the power of this element.

Fire in used in many ways, from powering fireworks to heating homes. We use it for heat, light and power. Three main components are needed for fire. First, there must be a fuel to burn. Second, oxygen must be available — after all, combustion is essentially an oxidation process that gives off heat and light. And third, there must be a heat or ignition source that allows the fire to begin. The main sources of ignition before humans appeared were lightning strikes.

  1. Controlling Fire

When humans first learned how to control fire, it was an important step in their culture. It allowed humans to cook food and get warmth and protection. Making fire also allowed activity into the dark, gave some protection frightening off predatory animals and the smoke would have been effective in keeping insects away. The cooking of food was probably the most useful effect of fire. There are foods like fruits which do not need cooking, but others, such as meat and root vegetables, mostly need cooking.

The first stage of human interaction with fire, perhaps as early as 1.5 million years ago in Africa, is likely to have been opportunistic. Fires may have simply been conserved by adding fuel, such as dung that is slow burning to one which started naturally. This ability to “stretch” fire was a novel feat, only developed by humans.

The earliest certain evidence of human control of fire was found at Swartkrans, South Africa. Many burnt bones were found among Acheulean tools, bone tools, and bones with cut marks that were made by hominids. This site also shows some of the earliest evidence of humans eating meat. Clear evidence of habitual use of fire, though, comes from caves in Israel dating back between 400,000 and 300,000 years ago, and include the repeated use of a single hearth in Qesem Cave, and indications of roasting meat.

An important change in the behavior of humans happened because of their control of fire and the light that came from the fire. Activity was no longer restricted to the daylight hours. Fire also led to better nutrition though cooked proteins. Richard Wrangham of Harvard University argues that cooking of plant foods may have caused the brain to get bigger, because it made complex carbohydrates in starchy foods easier to digest. This made humans absorb more calories.

  • Starting Fire

The next stage was to gain the ability to start a fire. This would have enabled more regular and managed use, allowing the development of cooking, expanding our diet. According to British primatologist Richard Wrangham, cooking may have played a role in the expansion of our brains. The hearth would have probably formed a social focus, helping the development of language.

The use of flints to start fire may have occurred as far back as 400,000 years ago, but concrete evidence only comes from as recently as 40,000 years ago. As the American archeologist Andrew Sorensen and his colleagues have put it, “we archaeologists have yet to ascertain, even in coarse chronological terms — when in our early prehistory fire became part of the human tool kit.”

  • Controlling Fire

The third stage, in which humans began to use and control fire on a regular and widespread basis, may have started only 7,000 years ago. This includes the use of fire for land clearance for agriculture and even for warfare. But even when humans were controlling fire to the extent that it could be used to modify agriculture, we should not lose sight of the fact that wildfire is predominantly controlled by climate.

Today we humans appear to be confident of our ability to control fire. But we should not become overconfident. The spread of non-native grasses such as Gamba grass in Australia and Cheat grass in North America, together with a warming climate, are having a severe impact on the nature, scale and frequency of wildfires. It would be well for us to take on board the fact that fire has been part of Earth’s story for the past 420 million years, and will continue to be so long after we are all gone.

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