By | October 29, 2008

As we discussed in a recent edition of FastForward Radio, the mastery of fire was one of the most significant steps forward in human history. Stephen pointed out that human beings were able to use fire long before we developed the ability to create fire. So fire was a rare and precious substance that fell from heaven (dropped by Prometheus, no doubt) and which, once found, had to be carefully protected and preserved.

And then came that amazing, fateful day when human beings discovered that they could make fire virtually any time and any place they wised. But how long ago did this discovery take place? Longer ago than you might have thought, it turns out:

Humans made fire 790,000 years ago

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A new study shows that humans had the ability to make fire nearly 790,000 years ago, a skill that helped them migrate from Africa to Europe.

By analysing flints at an archaeological site on the bank of the river Jordan, researchers at Israel’s Hebrew University discovered that early civilizations had learned to light fires, a turning point that allowed them to venture into unknown lands.

A previous study of the site published in 2004 showed that man had been able to control fire — for example transferring it by means of burning branches — in that early time period. But researchers now say that ancient man could actually start fire, rather than relying on natural phenomena such as lightning.

So we’ve had dogs with us longer than we realized, and we’ve been making fire for longer than we thought.

Like primitive agriculture and animal husbandry, fire is one of the fundamental technologies that had to be mastered in order to transform human society from its pre-civilized state to full-blown civilization. Terry Bisson published a wonderful short story many years ago entitled Bears Discover Fire in which, well, take a wild guess. But in actuality they never did, and neither did gorillas nor chimps nor orangutans.

Which is one of the reasons — not the only reason, but an important one — that human beings write blog posts about those species, but they never return the favor.


Hmmm…should I save some of this stuff for the bears? Naaaaaaaa.

  • Stephen Gordon

    You know, this makes me wonder whether humans didn’t have the ability to create fire for most of the history they used fire.

    Those generations deep ash-pits might be evidence of the difficulty making fire rather than evidence of the impossibility of making fire.

    “Sure we can make fire, but its enough of a hassle that, instead, we’ll just keep this camp fire going forever.”