Taming of Fire
from the book, "Our Fascinating Earth"

Book: 
Our Fascinating Earth

Taming of Fire

The discovery of fire by early man made living easier in the hostile world of the Stone Age. Fire warmed his cave in the winter, and because animals feared fire, he used it to stampede and bewilder them. It hardened his wooden spears, and cooking made his food surprisingly more palatable and nutritious.

Lighting and volcanoes were probably the original source of fire. It is conceivable that early man was, at first, awed by a burning tree recently struck by lightning. As he salvaged a glowing ember, his fears were rapidly replaced by curiosity. Man's sense of wonder suppressed his fright, and soon fire was warming his cave. An older person was probably assigned to keep the fire alive, since knowledge of how to start a fire artificially would not occur for eons. If the fire died through negligence of the fire watcher, the wrath of the tribe would certainly have descended on so careless a keeper.

Until recently the earliest real evidence of man's use of fire was in the caves of Zhoukoudian, China. Here Peking man enjoyed the comforts of a campfire nearly half a million years ago. Scientists believe that with his primitive intelligence he probably did not make the fire but instead brought embers into the cave and kept a fire burning constantly. One hearth in a Peking man cave revealed a pile of ashes twenty—two feet deep.

New discoveries in Africa seem to suggest that man's hominid ancestors used fire nearly a million years earlier than previous evidence had indicated. An archaeological dig in western Kenya revealed masses of burned clay intermingled with a number of crude stone tools and animal bones. Chemical tests indicate that the clay was heated to around 750 degrees Fahrenheit, just the right temperature for an open campfire. Radiometric dating shows these remains to be about 1.4 million years old.

A still older site, dating to about 1.5 million years ago, was recently discovered at Swartkrans Cave in South Africa. Here two scientists unearthed a large number of charred animal bones. Many of them bore marks of cutting tools, indicating that the meat had been chopped off to be eaten. Cooking revolutionized the eating habits of Homo erectus, as meat became more digestible, nourishing, and bacteria—free.

In their relatively hospitable world of mild climates year—round, these early hominids probably were not dependent on fire to keep their caves warm. Fire was a worthy ally, but its earliest uses would have been sporadic and would depend on their being able to steal a flame from nature. Flame after flame must have gone out before humans envisioned how to preserve the embers or take fire along on their wanderings.

Excavations at the Swartkrans Caves show that a number of hominids were killed by large cats such as the saber—toothed tiger. Man may have discovered, as soon as he dared come close to nature's flames, that a burning stick could frighten away a predator. This led to their keeping a fire near camp at night to discourage a cave bear or saber—toothed cat from approaching. Because the early humans were so vulnerable to attack by dangerous, agile carnivores, this was probably their first use of fire. The proportion of human bones found above the fire level is one—quarter the percentage of human remains in the accumulation of bones at the prefire level.

The possibility of hunting with fire also may have occurred to the hominid, who found by igniting the forest floor he could flush prey into the open where they would be at the mercy of spears, clubs, and stone axes. At about the same time he may have noticed that his wooden spear and clubs of bone or antler could be hardened by exposing them to fire.

With evidence that man used fire for a least 1.5 million years, it can safely be speculated that fire was probably first discovered about two million years ago. It seems amazing that so much time would pass before man was able to start his own fire by artificial means. This great achievement apparently did not occur until the time of Neanderthal man, whose tools included a fire starter, about 100,000 years ago.

The European Neanderthals were actually the first humans to have lived under subarctic and arctic conditions. In the summers they roamed a tundralike environment, following various game herds. But during the harsh Ice Age winters such wandering became impossible. Armed with torches, they drove bears and lions from limestone caves and took the caves for their own shelter. While snowstorms raged and winds howled outside the cave, they stayed behind windbreaks set up at the cave's entrance and huddled, comfortable and warm among animal furs, around a central hearth. Fire had lengthened their life and improved its quality.