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Evolution of Fire

Evolution of Fire

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Published by Bryan Kennedy
Questioning the origins of fire in pre-modern hominids
Questioning the origins of fire in pre-modern hominids

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Published by: Bryan Kennedy on Mar 07, 2007
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01/01/2013

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A Spark From The Past
Questioning the origins of fire in pre-modernhominids
“By labor fire is got out of stone.”  
-Dutch Proverb
Bryan Kennedy
Physical Anthropology, Section 4076Professor R. PerónApril 5, 2001
 
The campfire remains the quiessential symbol of gathering. Around it, humansfrom all walks of life unite to share stories, dreams, and tall tales. The use of fire has longbeen thought to have coincided with, and perhaps aided in the precipitation of, theevolution of modern human culture and language around forty thousand years ago. Thatis, up until last year, when two controversial studies were released that brought this long-held notion into question. These new findings suggest that not only might fire have beenput to intentional use by humans as far back as 1.6 million years, but since this would dateit before the accepted emergence of symbolic communication, it may not have had the far-reaching cultural and ritualistic effects we had once thought. In the end, fire may haveonly provided protection from carnivores and temporary warmth for our evolutionaryancestors. However, these new findings do not come without much controversy. Todiscover the conclusion to this fiery debate, we must go back in time with our ancestors,and examine this spark from the past that started it all.Fire plays an almost elemental part of everyday human culture. From the homefurnace that heats the air, to the gas stove used for cooking, we take the many uses of firefor granted. But there was a time when our ancestors did not have this enabling capability.Up until last year, most anthropologists believed that hominids could not haveaccomplished the feat of controlling fire before the introduction of language and symboliccommunication. That would have placed the first campfire of approximately forty
 
thousand years, squarely in the hands of modern Homo sapiens (McCrone, 2000). At leastthat’s what proponents of the “big bang” theory of human brain evolution suggest. Asthey purport, while it is likely H. erectus was capable at producing complex vocal sounds(Park, 1999), sheer mental ability was what held back our early ancestors from full-blownsymbolic communication and all that it entails, including fire-starting. Withoutcommunication, it was believed, H. erectus would lack the ability to pass the techniquesand uses of fire among individuals. This theory was challenged in the 70’s and 80’s withthe discovery of several “lenses” of burnt-out earth in modern-day Kenya, which weresupposedly the result of deliberate fire that dated back to 1.6 million years ago (McCrone,2000). However, those findings were severely crippled by the contention that the lensescould have been the result of naturally burning tree stumps, mineral deposits, or fungi.The “big bang” theory was not to be challenged until recent archeological finds againpushed back the emergence of fire.This time, strong evidence was to come from two sides. First, independentinvestigations in 1999 by Ralph Rowlett of the University of Missouri-Columbia andRandy Bellomo of the University of South Florida, suggested that the “lenses” in Kenyawere very likely to have been deliberate campfires. In his study, Rowlett usedthermoluminescent dating, an archeological dating method by which the age of materialcan determined by how much background radioactivity it has captured over its lifespan,and which is useful for up to eight hundred thousand years (Park, 1999). This method is

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