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Influence of Fire on Human Evolution

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

Throughout the evolution of hominids, (the family of primates that humans belong to) there has been a close connection with fire.

Hominids must have learned to manage fire very early in our history; most probably from natural sources, such lightning strikes and naturally occurring forest fires. It was much later that Hominids invented processes for fire lighting.

Fire throughout time

Hominids (genus Homo) appeared in Eastern Africa about 2.5 million years ago and fire has been linked closely with many stages of evolution.

It is thought that the ability to cook food led to the rise of homo erectus from its more primitive forebearers.

Cooked food supplies much more energy than raw food and appears to create a delay in food consumption. This may have given time to develop social skills, such as sitting around the campfire.

Cooked food also detoxifies potentially harmful bacteria. This led to an increase in diversity of food available.

It is thought that the use of fire to cook food led to the evolution of large brains.

These factors are thought to have prompted the evolution of large brains and bodies, small teeth, modern limb proportions and other human traits, including many social aspects of human-associated behaviour (Wrangham et al. 1999). Indeed, by softening food, fire could have had a large effect on extending the human life span beyond the age of good-quality teeth. This may have been very significant in social organization, including the “grandmother” hypothesis relating child care with social development and human evolution (Hawkes 2004).

These early hominids spread out of Africa, distributing their available fire technology. Fire promoted the dispersal of humans by allowing them to colonize colder environments and by protecting them from predators. There is evidence of the controlled use of fire by Homo erectus in Africa, from Oldowan hominid sites in the Lake Turkana region of Kenya. The earliest noncontroversial evidence out of Africa is from Gesher Benot Ya'aqov in Israel, during the Early-Middle Pleistocene (0.79 mya; (Goren-Inbar et al. 2004). The detailed analysis of this archaeological site from the Gesher Benot Ya'aqov in Israel, demonstrates that fire was used throughout the occupational sequence (about 100,000 years), suggesting that the knowledge these hominids had of fire making enabled them to set fire at will and in diverse environmental settings (Alperson 2008).

During the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic ages, fire was used extensively for what has been termed “fire-stick farming” (Bird et al. 2008). This term implies using fire for a variety of reasons: clearing ground for human habitats, facilitating travel, killing vermin, hunting, regenerating plant food sources for both humans and livestock, and even warfare among tribes. These land-management practices had profound impacts not only on fire regimes but also on the landscape vegetation pattern and biodiversity. Commonly, woody, closed-canopy shrub lands and woodlands were opened up or entirely displaced by fast-growing annual species that provided greater seed resources, travel, and hunting and planting opportunities. These changes also had cascading effects on ecosystem function. For instance, fire-stick farming by Australian Aborigines created fine-grained landscape mosaics with greater small-animal diversity and increased hunting productivity (Bird et al. 2008). In Mediterranean-climate California, where agriculture failed to develop until European colonization, use of fire was extensive and is thought to have created a disequilibrium that contributed to rapid alien plant colonization when Europeans arrived (Keeley 2002). This reshaping of landscapes has posed problems for ecologists trying to understand contemporary landscape patterns.

The earliest known evidence of manmade fire in the UK is at Beeches Pit.

Beeches Pit is a Middle Pleistocene archaeological site in Suffolk, East Anglia, UK dating to about 400,000 years. Apart from a great deal of palaeoenvironmental evidence investigated (Preece et al.), the site has yielded many traces of human activity, including evidence of the repeated use of fire. The area was also a focus of stone-working.

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