The use of fire is one of two important events in human development—not the individual kind, but the evolutionary one. Making stone tools is the other, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science on March 14.
In Buffalo last weekend, without thinking much about it, we did what early mankind did. We extended the daylight hours past what nature gave us.
How did this happen? In 2009, Richard Wrangham, Ruth Moore Professor of Anthropology at and Chair of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University,wrote a book called How Cooking Made Us Human (Basic Books). Using fire, for instance, meant the possibility of purposefully cooked food. Wrangham’s work also said that because cooked food is easier to digest, more energy was made available to fuel brain growth.
The new study acknowledges that cooking and eating cooked food were important to human evolution. Groups gathered around the hearth and so people had a central place for socializing as well as something communal to do there. It promoted sharing. And it took the hunter-gatherers out of just the grazing mode.
But there is disagreement among experts about when humans began to control fire and why. The new theories say that although traveling groups left debris from stone tools behind, they didn’t necessarily use fire purposely. Evidence of fire like burned out ground have been explained by natural events like lightning strikes or spontaneous combustion.
New processes are available now, though, to study the remains of traveling groups in detail. What scientists are finding is that fire may have been used purposely later than they had thought, in colder European areas where migrating groups came from Africa. The purposeful uses of fire there would naturally have included keeping warm and creating light past the usual daylight hours. Fire also would have been used to make adhesives for crafting more complicated stone tools.
To bring all that into the present day, it might have been like turning on the light switch so you can use power tools after dinner in winter, especially if there’s nothing good on television. Sort of.
The study can be accessed as: On the earliest evidence for habitual use of fire in Europe. Wil Roebroeksa and Paola Villab. Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, 2300 RA, Leiden, The Netherlands; bUniversity of Colorado Museum, Boulder, CO 80309-0265; cUnité Mixte de Recherche 5199, de la Préhistoire á l’Actuel: Culture, Environnement, et Anthropologie, Institut de Préhistoire et Géologie du Quaternaire, 33405 Talence,France; and School of Geography, Archaeology, and Environmental Studies, University of the Witwatersrand, Wits 2050 Johannesburg, South Africa
For more about how humans act in groups, try these:
Your culture passed along to the kids? Hunter gatherers did it too
Book review: The Social Animal worth a trip to the bookstore
Commentary: Privacy is part of what makes us human
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