The discovery of fire by humans: a long and convoluted process

Numbers of animal species react to the natural phenomenon of fire, but only humans have learnt to control it and to make it at will. Natural fires caused overwhelmingly by lightning are highly evident on many landscapes. Birds such as hawks, and some other predators, are alert to opportunities to catch animals including invertebrates disturbed by such fires and similar benefits are likely to underlie the first human involvements with fires. Early hominins would undoubtedly have been aware of such fires, as are savanna chimpanzees in the present. Rather than as an event, the discovery of fire use may be seen as a set of processes happening over the long term. Eventually, fire became embedded in human behaviour, so that it is involved in almost all advanced technologies. Fire has also influenced human biology, assisting in providing the high-quality diet which has fuelled the increase in brain size through the Pleistocene. Direct evidence of early fire in archaeology remains rare, but from 1.5 Ma onward surprising numbers of sites preserve some evidence of burnt material. By the Middle Pleistocene, recognizable hearths demonstrate a social and economic focus on many sites. The evidence of archaeological sites has to be evaluated against postulates of biological models such as the ‘cooking hypothesis’ or the ‘social brain’, and questions of social cooperation and the origins of language. Although much remains to be worked out, it is plain that fire control has had a major impact in the course of human evolution.

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About Giorgio Bertini

Research Professor. Founder Director at Learning Change Project - Research on society, culture, art, neuroscience, cognition, critical thinking, intelligence, creativity, autopoiesis, self-organization, rhizomes, complexity, systems, networks, leadership, sustainability, thinkers, futures ++
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