Some of our most primal feelings arise when we gather around a flaming bonfire, linking us to the thousands of years of security that fire has provided for humanity--warming us, illuminating our way, feeding us and keeping us safe.
Man never "invented" fire. It might even be a stretch to say it was "discovered." Fire existed naturally, prior to the existence of man, occurring and igniting from such ready sources as lightning and lava.
On the other hand, the "controlled" use of fire was certainly a human innovation . Researchers believe the practice may have begun as long as 1.8 million years ago and endured through the advent of post-ice age migration 40,000 years ago.
Also known as "fire keeping" or "fire tending," controlling fire as a means of survival is believed to have occurred simultaneously in different parts of the world around the same time.
In the early Paleolithic period, ancient man must have reveled in the rare instances when the nights were made a little brighter by a burning branch brought back to camp by brave individuals. The blaze would scare away unwanted guests—predatory creatures that stalk sleeping prey.
Of course, it would have been a challenge to keep the fire burning day and night. When fuel ran out, moonlight and the stars were the only source of light after sunset, leaving encampments vulnerable to attack.
Gradually, humans found that fire could be started by friction, such as the "two stones" technique of creating fiery sparks to ignite a blaze. This reduced the need for constant tending of fires, and "fire making" became widespread around 750,000 years ago.
The discovery of fire by friction led to early man’s mobility. Stone Age man was empowered by this element, which enabled migration into colder and once "hostile" environments.
With fire, it was also possible to cook meat . This may have allowed ancient people to preserve food longer. It also saved their immune systems the trouble of fighting off food-borne pathogens that are killed in the cooking process.
Communal fires served as gathering points, where stories were shared, passing on knowledge and strengthening tribal bonds. In a way, fire ignited the proliferation of culture.
So the next time you light a candle, the barbeque or a few logs in the fireplace, take a moment to appreciate the rich history of that flame. After all, it helped make us who we are today.
Alfablue, March 2013