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New theory suggests early humans used natural fires to cook

Ian Harvey

When one thinks of the average caveman, they usually think about when the first person made, or discovered, fire. Just think, fire is one “invention” that we cannot live without – it is the reason we can cook our food. Many people would probably say that the discovery of fire is the biggest step in evolution that humans have made.

A new study done by archaeologists suggest that fire was first used by the early humans in order to help them forage for food. Not only that, but it is believed that humans used fire long before we ever thought.

According to a theory, natural fires in the African landscape that happened nearly two to three million years ago may have shaped human society by creating an awareness of the benefits of fire, and developing the human dependency on it. With their need for fire, people began to think about ways to use it and ways to control it, such as by building fire pits to contain fire and keep it manageable.

The anthropologists who came up with this theory believe that natural forest fires most likely made it easier for the humans to find animal holes and also cleared away brush, helping humans find animal tracks to make it easier to hunt. Not only that, but if a poor animal got caught in the fire, it was already cooked, and humans discovered the benefits of cooking food. This allowed the animal to be eaten immediately or kept for a time, and humans would have also found cooked food easier to digest. The same idea would have gone for roots, tubers, and other plants that were edible – these plants would have been cooked in the fire, making them tastier and easier for the humans to eat.

An anthropologist at the University of Utah, Kirsten Hawkes, believes that Africa had been prone to fire around two to three million years ago. Taking the dry environment into consideration, experts see that it was easier for the bushes and grass to set on fire, so natural fires began to occur more frequently. In the areas where the fires were frequent, the humans who lived there began to rely on this resource more and more often.

If this new theory is correct, that means that humans originally did not discover fire by pounding rocks against one another to produce a spark. Many anthropologists believe that humans had first began using fire nearly 1.5 million years ago, however others say that humans first began controlling fire nearly 350,000 years ago.

Hawkes and her colleagues believe that humans learned how to control the fire earlier than that before becoming fully reliant on the fires. Again, if this theory is correct, that means that as humans began controlling fire and using it to their advantage, human beings themselves began evolving. For example, humans such as the Homo erectus developed smaller teeth and jaws because they were eating cooked meat, which was softer and easier to chew.

Hawkes stated that all humans are fire-dependent. She also explained that the problem for historians is trying to correct the other theories about humans using fire for the first time. She added that many people who are studying early humans believe that they would have naturally run away from fire, seeing it as a threat. However, after realizing its potential, people saw that fire could provide them with new opportunities. Some data actually shows that other animals, including primates, had also used fire in order to eat better. Hawkes explained that they were taking advantage of the natural fires to forage more efficiently.

Fire use, even today, is crucial and useful. How could it be that the fire wasn’t taken advantage of by early humans? There were so many reasons to use that fire to benefit their lives.

To test their theory, Hawkes and her colleagues had recreated the climate and vegetation of Africa two to three million years ago. They did recent carbon analysis on the soils from the Awash Valley in Ethiopia and Omo-Turkana basin in northern Kenya. In that particular area, there were woody plants, which means it was more tropical and more prone to fire during the time. Around this particular time, there were levels of carbon dioxide that had begun dropping, making Africa more arid.

In the carbon analysis, there was fossilized wood found in the area, proving the vegetation to be even drier than the wood and grasses. The researchers believe that the ecosystem had become more arid, differentiating woodland and open grasslands. In those drier areas fires were more common; humans would have needed to adapt to the fires, taking advantage of the food sources left behind from them.

In their research the experts found that the fires would have left behind many available food sources, leaving humans with more time for other endeavors because they would have spent less time searching for food. They would have used natural fires to find food before eventually learning how to make the fire themselves and control it for their use. Once they learned about fire, they learned that it was easier to find the food themselves, and hunting began.

Homo rhodesiensis Source

Homo rhodesiensis Source

Hawkes said that this is a major reason why archaeologists haven’t found the evidence of hearths and fires in archaeological digs during those times. If the humans had cooked over a hearth, it would have left traces that would have been well-preserved over all of those years.

Hawkes also explained that the increase of fire would have allowed human beings to travel farther and expand into other countries and continents, as opposed to other humans in the world who had to stay close to one spot in order to survive.