Evolution by Fire

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

5 thoughts on “Evolution by Fire

  1. Hi Matthew,

    I’ve been curious about the control of fire for a long time – how do you not sleep in a tree or natural rock fortress (the first option being ineffective against leopards, the second against hyenas) while moving north into more open, temperate climates outside of Africa? I could be wrong, but I don’t see ergaster or erectus climbing trees for the night. The nesting instinct should have been long gone by then. And they were no longer built for it.

    I don’t disagree with the volcanism theory but another scenario seems more likely to me. Some late Australopithecine or early Homo finally “realized”, after a few thousand generations of burning the entire neighborhood down, that banging a random assortment of rocks together in very dry grass had consequences that they were actively involved in. Some combinations of stones were shown to work out as effective cutting/slicing tools and some combinations sent hot sparks flying into the grass and sent hominins scampering.

    The result, however, might be regularly foraged BBQs supporting the combination of a reduced gut, smaller teeth and an energy hungry brain. It’s never that simple of course, or in that order, but as behavior seems to precede morphological change, a positive feedback loop might fall into place. I suspect a precocious 11 year old child figured this out – probably female. :0)

    I asked John Hawks this same question and he was kind enough to respond. I was surprised that he saw a bow and stick friction method more likely at the beginning (as I read it – and he told me that finding proof of fire use 1.8 million years ago wouldn’t be surprising to most paleoanthropologists). R. Leakey envisions an ergaster capable of using snares and other traps – some find the creature only nominally able to communicate – if it is able to effectively communicate at all.

    Just wanted to let you know that I think ergaster’s predecessors were innocent pyromaniacs with, possibly, the behavioral flexibility to take advantage of the situation.



    1. perhaps you want to look into thorns as a manner of defence. that besides, historically we know 3 kinds of people, making fire, carrying fire and not knowing fire. this unfortunately strongly suggests that either homo sapiens has recently (after it evolved) invented firemaking, or firemaking has allways been subject to military dominance from before that. i think the latter is somewhat farfetched. however, earlier researchers suggested that ancient species would have carried fire exclusively, (not made it). as i tend to the opinion hominids knew fire, for at least 800ka or so and more probably the double, this is an interesting puzzle. for example one would assume there is more of a correlation between firemaking /carrying cappacity and climate. but besides the extremer climates (and even there, did not tasmanians have no fire?) i am not aware there is such a correlation. thus the monopoly of fire (making) appears to possibly be an element of human culture crossing the species barreer.
      that hominids would in absence of the capacity to make fire have preserved fire over 100s of millenia is challenging. yet if i am not mistaken someone somewhere proved one specific fire had been carried for 35 or 50k years for the idea. sorry that i dont have the faintest where that was. it is also known firecarrying people have a great understanding of the importance of maintaining such a fire, it is so to say “sacred”. i think i remember the myths of people that did not know fire indeed sometimes told about the loss of it. basically by chasing people from their living areas in a swift and brutal way, their knowledge of fire could be lost. (they were no longer carrieing any in that case).

  2. There was an important conference on fire in human evolution in december 2010, in which both Richard Wrangham and I were participants, focusing on early humans and fire. My talk excerpted from my book FIRE: THE SPARK THAT IGNITED HUMAN EVOLUTION, which suggests that the LIGHT coming from the ASSOCIATION with fire affected genes through epigenetic mechanisms. Epigenesis is not a new idea, but its validation and inclusion in mainstream understanding of genetics is new. epigenesis exp0lains how the environment gets ‘into’ the genome, through biochemical process.
    Light –especially blue light — shuts off the flow of melatonin, the brain hormone active in darkness that regulates circadian rhythms. The implications

  3. when you smash stones together you get sparks, the idea handaxes (acheulean eg.) look more usefull for fuel than meat makes sense to me. if i am not mistaken microwear has proven before they were also used for vegetal matter, i suppose it would be relatively easy to check that for a greater number of ancient tools.

    epigenetics? i don’t know, obviously when animals and plants exchange genetic information, whether reaction or actual exchange, more easily than it was ever expected before biogenetical experimentation, so will humans to an extent react to the minerals and biochemicals they take in.probably for even the amount of water they take in. there are rather obvious impacts of the kind with eg. lacto-allergy. but i suspect it is not what he is refering to?

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