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For many years, the use of fire has been central to the discussion of human evolution. When was fire first controlled, and when was it first actually made by man? These are questions that rise again and again, but with scant early proof. Recently in the online journal Fire Ecology, an environmental scientist discusses what could be the earliest regular source of fire for our earliest ancestors (or potential ancestors).

Maybe an unconventional source for speculation on human origins, Michael Medler is an associate professor of environmental science at Western Washington University.  His paper can be broken into two sections, one based on reasonable observations in his specialty, and the other of speculation outside of his field (which in all fairness, the author sort of points out himself).

For millions of years in the African Rift Valley, volcanic activity went through periods of relative stability. Early groups of hominins going back millions of years would have been had access to lava flows, and in turn the benefits of heat and fire. Could it have been here that the earliest hominins started to add fuel to keep a fire going, keeping close to it for protection or warmth?

Homo erectus, a species that likely moved out of Africa aided by fire.

Maybe– but as Medler points out it is impossible to tell archaeologically. It is difficult enough for experts to determine fire usage in later instances, let alone millions of years ago in Africa.  If the earliest fire-users were in close proximity to lava flows, it is possible that the evidence would never be found. If charred bones turn up, who is to say that they were not burned by a natural fire? For now, this type of theory will remain almost strictly without archaeological evidence based simply on the principle of poor preservation.

However, the author states that there can be strong circumstantial evidence in support of his claims. If times of volcanic activity coincide with the presence of hominin species, this could perhaps be considered suggestive. As one example, Medler notes a period consistent with the emergence of Homo erectus.  Before 1.8 million years ago, there was a time of volcanic activity that was stable for about 200,000 years. This period overlaps with both the appearance of Homo erectus and their dispersal out of Africa—where knowledge of fire would have been an important factor.

There were many parts of Medler’s paper that had me questioning its integrity, namely the section on the use of tools.  While the sections that had me shaking my head were under the subheading “speculations and just so stories” I do not think this excuses him from their inclusion. He writes– without citation—-about how hand axes would have been more useful in cutting fuel than meat.  Where he got this information, I’m not really positive.

While this article does not seem to have been done in a circle of paleoanthropologists, the core ideas should get you thinking. Looking at volcanoes as a potential source of fire is intriguing, mainly because of the consistency with which they are present historically. Perhaps the next paper will have an anthropologist as a co-author.

By Matthew Magnani

Medler, M.J. 2011. Speculations about the effects of fire and lava flows on human evolution. Fire Ecology 7(1): 13-23. doi: 10.4996/fireecology.0701013