Ancient Man May Have Used Fire 1.5 Million Years Ago

April 6th, 2012
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Of all the discoveries of ancient man, none made a greater impact on humanity than fire. Although fire was certainly developed independently by many groups, its discovery is none the less one of the greatest moments in mankind becoming what we are today. Without fire there could be no cooking, no warmth beyond what nature or body heat can provide, no light after dark. Fire was man’s first discovery that allowed the utilization of energy on demand. It would later drive our engines, smelt our metals and even propel rockets to the moon and beyond.

Anyone who has started a campfire without an accelerate knows that it can be surprisingly difficult to get a good strong self-sustaining flame going, even with the aid of matches or a lighter. For early man, it was much more difficult still. Simply being able to consistently create a fire and contain it for use demonstrates a high degree of intelligence and the ability to learn.

Now scientists have discovered evidence that it may have happened earlier than we had previously believed.

Via CBS News:

Humans used fire 1 million years ago, says study
(AP) NEW YORK – When did our ancestors first use fire? That’s been a long-running debate, and now a new study concludes the earliest firm evidence comes from about 1 million years ago in a South African cave.

The ash and burnt bone samples found there suggest fires frequently burned in that spot, researchers said Monday.

Over the years, some experts have cited evidence of fire from as long as 1.5 million years ago, and some have argued it was used even earlier, a key step toward evolution of a larger brain. It’s a tricky issue. Even if you find evidence of an ancient blaze, how do you know it wasn’t just a wildfire?

The new research makes “a pretty strong case” for the site in South Africa’s Wonderwerk Cave, said Francesco Berna of Boston University, who presents the work with colleagues in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

One expert said the new finding should be considered together with a previous discovery nearby, of about the same age. Burnt bones also have been found in the Swartkrans cave, not far from the new site, and the combination makes a stronger case than either one alone, said Anne Skinner of Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., who was not involved in the new study.

Another expert unconnected with the work, Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University in The Netherlands, said by email that while the new research does not provide “rock solid” evidence, it suggests our ancestors probably did use fire there at that time.

One thing I have always wondered about, and of course, we will never know, is how many ancients may have learned of fire only to abandon it out of fear. Certainly not all of early man’s encounters with fire were pleasant. It may first have been experienced in the wildfires started by spontaneous combustion of overheated turf or from a lightning strike. Such an experience would be terrifying, and once man began to experiment with fire, it’s all but certain that some mishaps and burns occurred.

Yet some groups stuck with it. Perhaps it was because it was recognized as useful or maybe because it frightened others. Maybe it was just curiosity. Whatever the case, at some point, someone began to create fires and, despite perhaps suffering a few burns or coughing on smoke and enduring the frustration of seeing the tiny smoldering embers go out, they learned how to tame and use fire.

Might there have been some tribes that had mastered fire and others that did not? If so, it’s almost certain that this advantage would have lead to those with fire succeeding and those who didn’t falling by the wayside. This could have even been a factor in early human evolution.

But what i early mankind looked at fire the way we look at new forms of energy today? Would they have used fire at all? It’s a sobering thought to consider that if our ancestors had the same attitude we have today, we might still be eating raw meat, huddled in mud huts at the mercy of the cold darkness of night…

This entry was posted on Friday, April 6th, 2012 at 1:08 am and is filed under Culture, Good Science, History, Misc, Nuclear. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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22 Responses to “Ancient Man May Have Used Fire 1.5 Million Years Ago”

  1. 1
    DV82XL Says:

    One can assume that you are right – that those groups of early humans that did reject fire were the ones that disappeared; those that could cope with it prospered.

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  2. 2
    Q Says:

            DV82XL said:

    One can assume that you are right – that those groups of early humans that did reject fire were the ones that disappeared; those that could cope with it prospered.

    Actually it’s amazing when you think of it. It would take a lot of effort to make a fire and keep it going. Yeah, it goes out easily before it reaches a certain size. Early man must have experimented quite a lot with banging rocks together with dry moss or with some kind of fire bow. Must have taken a lot of experimentation to make it work. Perhaps the first use was taking a burning branch from a natural fire and then making extreme efforts to reproduce it.

    Then after all that work, those totally inexperienced with fire almost surely burned themselves, because if you imagine seeing something as amazing as fire for the first time then the natural urge is to touch it and determine what it is made of etc.

    It could explain a lot about humanity and our success. Making fire would require intelligence, curiosity to overcome fear. Fire would surely make a group prosper so that could be the root of some traits in evolution. A more visceral reaction is that if something hurts you or causes a problem then you hate it and avoid it further. It takes more understanding to realize it has use even if it does have danger.

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  3. 3
    Steve Says:

    It has been argued that the first use of fire by humans was of natural origin. This makes perfect sense. After a brush fire or something, some human gathered burning sticks or even just embers and put them in tinder to restart the fire. A good question would be why did they do this. They surely saw fire as destructive and scary. Going up to the fire and taking it might have burned the first who tried before they learned to use other instruments to pick it up. Perhaps it was curiosity or maybe the destructive forces for use in war or conflict or maybe the fact that it made light. Hard to say.

    One wonders how many false starts this must have produced before someone actually stuck with it long enough to exploit the uses of fire. One might think that more than a few gave up after being burned or having the fire go out. Of course, if fire is from natural sources then it must be kept going because once out that’s it. This is a lot of work too.

    What did they think? We can only guess. Maybe fire was a curse at first until someone realized it was a blessing. After that, a brush fire or lightning strike might be thought of as a gift from the gods or something. It gave fire, although I’m sure it was intermittent because it’s hard to keep it going unless you have a concerted effort to keep gathering brush and if you throw too big on it will go out. If it goes down, you need to gently blow on it to get it flaming again. Blow too hard and it goes out. Much trial and error must have been required to learn this.

    Humans evolved in Africa, and they have regular brush fires there due to lightning or spontaneous combustion. It might have been just a matter of time before someone saw a fire and did something other than running away from it (which was probably the most common early response)

    I think it was much later after the basics of keeping a fire going were mastered that humans moved onto the much more complex task of how to make fire when it is not given by a freak event. That again would be a major evolutionary advantage.

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  4. 4
    Andrew Jaremko Says:

    I think it can also be argued that we require heat to be human, and that we have co-evolved with fire for a long time. Fire’s heat might just be required to support our big brains, the most energy-hungry organ in our body. The interview The Raw and The Cooked (click for the audio file) with Rachel Carmody on CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks makes just this point:

    Human evolution took a different direction a couple of million years ago. Our human ancestors became larger and stronger, but then, oddly, certain parts of our anatomy became less robust – particularly our jaws and teeth. Some researchers have suggested that this paradoxical feature of our evolution could be explained by the development of cooking. Rachel Carmody, a PhD candidate in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, has demonstrated in new work that cooking could enable both of these adaptations. She showed that cooked food provides more energy than raw food, probably because it’s more easily and efficiently digested. This meant that early humans eating cooked food would get more energy from their food, allowing them to grow bigger, but would need less strong jaws and teeth, since the food was softer and easier to chew and digest.

    To me, this also suggests a prediction: we’ll eventually find evidence of hominid use of fire starting when hominid anatomy changed. But then, I’m not a scientist with professional caution and a reputation to maintain, so I’m free to jump to conclusions.

    As for our possible coevolution with fire, here’s some anecdotal evidence. Last Christmas at a friend’s home the group was conversing while looking at a television showing a wood fire in a fireplace. One friend commented that even just that, the image and sound of a wood fire, made her feel warm and cozy. I could feel the same effect. This home had a gas fireplace as well – but it wasn’t lit. The televised fire had the sound of wood burning, and the gas fireplace only makes a soft hissing sound, not the characteristic crackle of a wood fire. How much does the sound matter? How much does actual heat matter? Are deep-seated feelings of safety and comfort activated?

    I think there’s a research opportunity here. A Google Scholar search on “psychology of fire” turns up a lot of material. There’s always too much to explore.

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  5. 5
    Q Says:

    @Andrew Jaremko: Is that inbred or conditioning that the sound and look of a fire would make one warm?

    Fire definitely has a lot of psychological effects though. I’m not sure which are really inbred to humans and which are acquired. Some people are fascinated with it to become pyromaniacs. It can be very scary and some people have fear of fire. It can also be comforting.

    Maybe there is inter-relations between fire allowing bigger brains and fire also requiring a bigger brain to master. Those who mastered fire were the ones who were smarter and could figure it out but also the ones who ended up needing more nutrition. Repeat this over generations. Those who had fire could be smarter and bigger brained, but they also had to be, because fire requires some intelligence to make and keep.

    I did some searching, and as I expected, humans and human ancestors are the only animals known to ever build and control fires in the manner we do. It turns out that at least one chimp has learned the skill in captivity, but required quite a lot of priming by man with videos on it providing fire tinder to figure it out and also they had to give the chimp a lighter or matches to do it.

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  6. 6
    Russ Says:

    Fire: A great slave but a terrible master. To this day the most destructive and deadly weapon of war. Fire can burn you but without it the world is cold and dark.

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  7. 7
    Gordon Says:

    On the psychology of fire, and the fact that it can be comforting and scary, my uncle used to tell stories of how he had been in United States marines during world war II in the Pacific. He said the flame thrower saved many Japanese lives, because only the flame thrower could make Japanese come out and surrender from their positions. The Japanese believed that death with honor was better than capture and they had been told that the Americans were going to kill them anyway if they were captured, so they would stand their ground to the point of suicide if they were held up and surrounded.

    The flamethrower was the one thing he said made the Japanese throw down their guns and come out with their hands up. They could face the prospect of death by a bomb or bullet. The flame thrower filled them with such terror that they would either commit suicide or come out and surrender. If the Japanese were out of ammo they would run a suicide charge at a tank or gunner, but never at a flamethrower. Burning to death was not something they could bring themselves to do.

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  8. 8
    L.Long Says:

    The cartoon would not have happened. The main reason is that there was no real reason.
    If silly enough to misuse the fire you would be laughed at and told to use it carefully.
    The run-away fires and ash disposal would not have been a real problem as there was plenty of room to get rid of ash and a run-away fire is handled by -well- running away.
    Now that we have 3.5BILLION people on the planet there is no place to just ‘put the ash’ anymore.

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  9. 9
    outcast Says:

    Sadly even after so many millenia of serving us well and providing us with more wholesome food, increasing numbers of people are turning away from fire as a means to prepare their food.

    To see some of these people in action, skip to 7:00 in the following video

    Is nothing safe from the hippy menace?

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  10. 10
    drbuzz0 Says:

            L.Long said:

    The cartoon would not have happened. The main reason is that there was no real reason.
    If silly enough to misuse the fire you would be laughed at and told to use it carefully.
    The run-away fires and ash disposal would not have been a real problem as there was plenty of room to get rid of ash and a run-away fire is handled by -well- running away.
    Now that we have 3.5BILLION people on the planet there is no place to just ‘put the ash’ anymore.

    Yes, it’s silly, but I think the metaphore has been lost on you…

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  11. 11
    George Carty Says:

            Russ said:

    Fire: A great slave but a terrible master.

    To this day the most destructive and deadly weapon of war. Fire can burn you but without it the world is cold and dark.

    Fire was indeed the world’s first WMD. As ordinary people in pre-industrial times tended to live cheek-by-jowl in tiny dwellings often constructed of highly flammable materials, fire was always the most feared possibility whenever a city was besieged or sacked.

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  12. 12
    Matte Says:

    Umpossible! God created man about 6,000 years ago, so man could not have used fire that long ago!
    Ergo it is all a lie, a LIE I tell you! *froth at mouth*

    [//sanity on]
    This is really cool, as somebody else mentioned, fire could possibly have been one of the factors that kick started development of heftier brains in our progenitors…

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  13. 13
    L.Long Says:

    Sorry #10 but the metaphor was not lost as I did ‘get it’.
    I was answering the content of the cartoon.
    Yes I do get it and it is so right as my daughter is fond of pointing out that under or present methods of discussing and being so afraid of harming someone that even aspirin would not be legal!

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  14. 14
    Joel Riddle Says:

    Some discussion of how the Japanese and German industrial economies might evolve over the next several decades might fit in appropriately here.

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  15. 15
    John ONeill Says:

    It used to be said that the Tasmanians, who were cut off from the rest of humanity for 8,000 years after sea level rise formed Bass Strait, had lost the art of starting fire and had to carry if in a fire pot. Just googled that- apparently it wasn’t so, an early document describes their Boy Scout techniques.
    Aboriginal use of fire to clear forest on mainland Australia is supposed to give a very clear signal in the fossil record , through vegetation changes and animal extinctions, of when they first reached the continent. It would be interesting if similar changes could be pinned down to our more remote forebears in Africa.
    Some scientists also see a human fingerprint in past climate fluctuations, for example, methane from early rice cultivation causing warming, or reforestation of cropped areas after the destruction of the Aztec and Inca empires leading to reduced CO2 levels and helping bring about the Little Ice Age. Maybe the very first humans were already fiddling with the planetary air conditioning system.

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  16. 16
    George Carty Says:

    Haven’t some researchers suggested that Mongol conquests may have contributed to the later Little Ice Age, as their extermination of farmers led land to revert to forest?

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  17. 17
    Joel Riddle Says:

            Joel Riddle said:

    Some discussion of how the Japanese and German industrial economies might evolve over the next several decades might fit in appropriately here.

    And in the news this evening, 2 reactors in Japan will be re-started. Well-reasoned decision, I would say.

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  18. 18
    Andrew Jaremko Says:

    Thanks all for the comments. The April 7, 2012 edition of Quirks and Quarks has an interview about the discoveries at the Wonderwerk cave:

    A team led by Dr. Michael Chazan, professor of Anthropology and director of the Archeology Centre at the University of Toronto, has found new evidence that human ancestors had controlled fire a million years ago. Before this discovery, no good evidence of the human use of fire had been discovered predating the Neanderthals, so this evidence pushes back the use of fire by hundreds of thousands of years. The evidence was discovered in Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa, and was quite difficult to identify. The archeologists discovered ash from burned grasses, as well as burned bone and stone, but no defined fire pit. This suggests the possibility that Homo erectus used fire differently from later humans species, and perhaps had not learned to fully control or utilize it.

    The Quirks page also has links to the published paper and more news stories. Interesting to see some national pride at work – in the US report it’s a US researcher mentioned, in Canada it’s a professor at one of our Universities.

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  19. 19
    Al H from TX Says:

    That captioned caveman picture is most clever funny thing I have ever seen in my life. Perfect analogy for nuclear power. Yeah, if they did think that we would still be running naked through the bush today, since fire is really the thing that made civilization possible.

    I think you might be right though (pure speculation) that if humans lived in a small tribes and bands of families then there might have been some that accepted fire and some that rejected it, either because they feared it or because they never managed to learn how to use it and how to make it. If that was the case (probably was) the ones who were not for fire would have not done as well as the ones who were for fire and since it’s so hard to survive anyway, died out.

    Maybe we could learn something?

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  20. 20
    Matt Says:

    The caveman “Fire Bad!” image above is one of the most eloquent framers of radiophobia I’ve seen. Lemmings reserve their most vivid wild imagination for the ultra-low risks of nuclear energy, and they willfully ignore the reality that fossil fuel kills twice as many people each and every day as nuclear energy has in all history. Lemmings worry about 5%-spent pellets but then dump 30 tons of CO2 (with particulates and acid) per-person into the atmosphere every year. Lemmings pretend there are significant options besides nuclear and fossil. Reality: wind+solar provide less than 1% of US energy. If a nuke plant is stopped, it is a natural gas plant that is built instead. Lemmings claim to recognize the coming global warming crisis, but fail to support the one large-scale alternative that can stop it. That is a form of climate change denial. Lemmings conflate nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, ignoring the fact that the MSR/LFTR fuel cycle is proliferation resistant. MSR/LFTR can productively burn up the aforementioned 5%-spent pellets and that is *the* way to get rid of them.

    Lemmings staunchly maintain their willful ignorance. They refuse to visit the following site.

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  21. 21
    vic Says:

    I don’t get what their talking about this web sucks

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  22. 22
    nic Says:

    irk you sucker ^-^ ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

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