Not enough thought has been given to the concept of fire with respect to our ancestors and the impact this acquisition has had on our evolution. No animal in the world has ever adopted, as a survival mechanism, a chemical reaction that it could lose and not be able to reacquire. The potential for fire to drive our evolutionary journey is almost unlimited. There can be little doubt that we use fire long before we could make it. The selective process engendered by such a situation is what would lead directly to Homo Sapiens.
Many years ago, Rudyard Kipling wrote a story about a boy named Mowgli. As a baby, Mowgli was lost in the jungle. The child was raised by wolves and came to think of himself as just another animal of the forest. More recently Walt Disney made a movie of Kipling’s story calling it The Jungle Book. The movie may be animated, but its truths are real.
Early in the story, Mowgli is kidnapped by monkeys and taken to their leader, an orangutan named King Louie. The crux of the kidnapping is that King Louie would like to know, in some of the finest jazz lyrics around, man’s “secret of fire.” Alas, Louis is to be disappointed. Mowgli never came into contact with other humans. He knows no more about the secrets of fire than the wolves he was raised with. Louie wanted fire. Louie knew that fire would make him human. The secret of fire separates man from animals in the movie just as it does in real life.
A small group of aquatic apes (or should we by now say homos?) occupy a stretch of beach fronting on a large mixed woodland/grassland plain. There are six males in the troop, ten females, and fifteen offspring of various ages. The males are about five feet five or six inches tall and, maybe, one hundred twenty- five pounds. The females stand at four foot eight to ten inches and around ninety pounds. These Homo Erectus are powerfully built and fully capable of running, climbing trees, and swimming in the water. They make their living mostly on land. The sea in their territory was almost entirely sand bottom and little marine life grew in the area. The sea did have one advantage for our ancestors, however. About 50 yards off shore was a small sandy mound which the troop used as a refuge at night.
These early humans lived by foraging and scavenging. They were equipped with stone tools including small fist-sized rocks used as projectiles. They also carried short, pointed sticks used for digging and for flipping over porcupines so that they could get at the soft underbelly with their flint cutters. These H. Erectus flourished on insects, grubs, lizards, fruits, roots, and scavenged meats and the occasional porcupine. The troop prospered along their length of beach and life was good.
The alpha male in the group was largely responsible for this prosperity. He was a genius. Through trial and error he had discovered that some stones make better tools than others. Now, most of the males had good, sharp flint hand axes. The other males also knew how to form the desired shape from raw stone by watching the alpha male. Even a few of the females carried flint tools, mostly cast-offs from the males, but a few made from scratch. These tools made life marginally easier for the whole troop. The male also made a discovery that contributed substantially to the success of this group of H. Erectus.
Periodically, fire swept the plain and, in the course of burning, the fire would sometimes incinerate the base of a particular shrub. The shrub put out long, single branches from a short gnarled base. The fire would char through these branches when it traversed the plains. Because the branches were green, only the bases would burn through. The alpha male found that these branches made perfect pointed digging sticks. Because they were green, they were more flexible than dry wood, and yet at the base the fire had hardened the wood to such a degree that it held a point very well.
The group liked fire. Of course, it had not always been so. Animals flee fire for the very good reason that fire doesn’t care. It will burn anything that gets close to it regardless of size or strength. Over the millennia, those that ran from fire survived. Those that didn’t, didn’t.
Our Homo Erectus ancestors at one time also feared fire. Caught on the open grasslands, fire would sometimes overtake the entire band and even climbing trees didn’t always allow for survival. If the flames were hot enough and high enough, the climbers would perish.
But this troop actually looked forward to fire. They knew that the beach didn’t burn and when smoke appeared on the horizon everyone made a beeline for the shore and the safety of the water. It was after the fire had passed that the real fun began. There were insects singed by the fire or even cooked and clearly visible in the ashes. There were lizards, rodents, all types of goodies and best of all no predators. Always with the fire they ran, always. They ran, even from their own kills, which made scavenging that much easier.
It was the alpha male that made the first connection. In the beginning it was difficult because the red dancing flowers could hurt quite badly if one wasn’t careful. But fire was fascinating, also. Was it alive? It gave the appearance of eating wood but not like normal eating. It was warm but only up close. It was now red, now black and then white. It grew and died quickly. It only affected certain things. Dry wood it ate, green it sometimes ate and sometimes not and stone it ate not at all. It was truly fascinating.
The male liked to play with fire. At first, he would only poke at it with his digging stick, turning over the burning wood, prodding the ash to see where the fire was. He would wave a smoldering brand in the air to make the red flames jump out of the black char. He would place small twigs on top of burning branches to see the red devour the wood. The big male found fire to be the most fascinating thing in his life.
The problem was that the fire kept going away. A wall of flame would traverse the plain, black smoke rolling and animals fleeing, then it would be gone. The plain would be black and quiet. Here and there a small plume of white smoke would life from a stump or a downed tree but the vast wall of red would be gone or clear over on the horizon and way beyond reach. The male could make the stumps erupt into red but only as long as he fed the fire with wood. Then one day, he had an idea and everything changed.
The shoreline occupied by the troop as well as the small sand spit used for sleeping was littered with driftwood. A river six miles to the south dumped lots of downed trees and well as branches and limbs into the ocean. The currents brought all of this detritus north and, sweeping in shore, dumped a lot of it on the beach and sand spit. The male would use this wood to keep the fire alive. One evening after a fire on the plain, he brought a burning branch back to the shore and thrust it into a pile of driftwood. Almost immediately the dry tinder caught fire and soon the whole troop had to back away from the blaze because of the heat. The troop watched for a while then made their way out to the spit to sleep.
In the morning, the male came ashore and looked at the ashes left from the driftwood fire. Here and there wisps of smoke drifted up from the burned wood. The male turned over a log and red sparks snapped and popped. Quickly he grabbed a handful of twig and put them on the log. A small tendril of smoke drifted up, then more, a twig snapped and charred, in a minute the pile burst into flame. More twigs then branches and soon a roaring fire was burning.
The chill of the water and the coolness of the morning was offset by the heat of the fire. It was nice to wake up wade across to the shore and make up a nice warm fire to start the day. And that is exactly what the troop did. Each evening they would use the ashes of yesterday’s fire to start another. Over time, they learned just how much wood to ignite and how to arrange the logs and what burned well and what not so well. One day it rained and they lost their fire. But they remembered and when the next lightning started fire swept the plains they took part of it back to the beach and again looked forward to warm mornings.
One evening as the group was preparing the evening fire, a pack of hyenas showed up. Normally the whole bunch would have dashed into the water but the hyenas seemed reluctant to attack. One of the males picked up a flaming branch and threw it at the pack. Sparks flew and the hyenas scattered. Another brand and the animals fled. It wasn’t just fire on the plains that predators feared. It was any fire. .
Homo Erectus learned. They learned to keep fire, first brands, then coals in large clam shells, shells filled with punky wood and two or three coals. Fires that would keep when the two halves of the clam shell were bound together. Fires that had to be protected from water not just rain but anything wet. Even a heavy damp would permeate the punk and snuff out the troops survival mechanism.
There is no doubt that the subjugation of fire put enormous strain on our intellectual capacities. Those groups that could do a better job of holding onto fire prospered. Those that lost fire or were never able to master it, were selected out. Brain power prevailed, Homo Erectus prevailed, and became the first primate to radiate out of Africa. Our ancestors had arrived.