Fire Use in Prehistory


Although research linked with palaeolithic fire usage has a long history, in the last decade it has seen a particular resurgence. This has been fueled in part by improved standards of collection and reporting of data, improved analytical techniques and new sites discovery with essential fire residues in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. A significant component of this research has been to examine when habitual use and controlled use of development of fire among Pleistocene hominins. However, a fundamental start point of this discussion defines both habitual use and controlled use as these terms are applied in inconsistent, undefined ways in the literature. The discussion also highlights how these behaviours might be identified in the archaeological records and brings some understanding of these technologies development potential implications and their climatic and geographical contexts are for the hominin evolution course.


Controlled use of fire

The discovery of the controlled use of fire had a significant impact on the hominin evolution and thereafter human civilization. Humans and animals all react to the fire we are the only species that can control or make it at will. The natural fire caused by lightning evident on landscapes would attract birds of prey and other predators, who would take advantage of invertebrates disturbed by such fires. These natural fires also had benefits for early humans as well. Early hominins became aware of such fires and knew the benefits; this became a significant early step of their involvement in the fire. Over time this became a process embedded in Human behaviour.

Hominins were an extinct early form of human and can be distinguished from primates by their erect posture, bipedal motion, larger brains and other behavioural characteristics. There are countless ways in which use of fire changed the evolution of humanity and in the following discussion, I will discuss what I believe to be the most significant of these. There is a clear effect on how hominins developed. The impact of the fire was effective as a means of protection from predators and in hunting, as a means of food, to engineer tools, the development of social interaction and language. The natural fire was available in the landscapes the hominins frequented which created bush and forest fires especially at the start of a rainy season.

Uses of controlled Fire

Means of protection

The fire was as a means of protection and hunting for the hominin. They were able to protect themselves from the climate by keeping them warm and accessing and living in otherwise uninhabitable environments, which enabled them to thrive. They were able to use fire as a means of clearing terrain and caves which enabled them to live in protected and heated habitats. Also, it would have been a means to defend themselves from predators by providing light and as a weapon. Grassfires deliberately lit allowed them to herd and trap animals and would have also been effective in controlling pest populations. Early hunter-gatherers used simple tools such as sharpened stones before the hand axe, these hand axes were developed 1.6 million years ago propelling a whole new approach to tool making.With the controlled use of fire, it allowed hunter-gatherers warmth in colder temperatures, cooking of raw meat and scare wild animals who could take food or attack their camps. Development of stone-tipped spears and wooden spears for hunting was a crucial step, as Neanderthals developed fine stone technology and bone tools. Hunting techniques were specialised by Homo sapiens with the refinement of fish hooks, harpoons, ivory needle and Bow and arrows. This would prove to be beneficial as it provided them with a wider diet, clothing and shelter allowing more scope to search for food. Around 500,000 years ago the introduction of spears, hunter-gatherers, was able to hunt larger prey to feed their groups. Modern humans were cooking Shellfish 160, OO years ago.

Changed Hominins diet

Controlled fire changed Hominins diet and intake of nutrients, scientists have discovered that fire is the link to Hominin evolution. Food was consumed raw by men and women as this was the only option of the time, just like animals with the consumption of raw food made our immune and digestive system immune to parasites and bacteria. Raw food consumed a considerable amount of time and energy to break down, spending long hours daily chewing as seen in primates and animals allowing the process of digestion easier. This could take from four to seven hours daily. The discovery of controlled fire enabled Hominins to cook raw food, cooked food was easier to chew and added nutrients and was easier to digest. The result of softer cooked meat created less time chewing increasing energy levels, in turn, higher calorie intake, the greater amount of nutrients allowing the brain capacity to increase in development.

Improved Hominins life

The control of fire changed diet for early Hominin and improved their quality of life. Biologists generally concedes that cooking of food had significant effects on human body evolution, cooked food tends to be softer than raw, and this enabled hominins to eat with smaller teeth and weaker jaws. Tubers, potatoes and root vegetables were barely digestible when raw with the aid of controlled fire made the vegetable digestible increasing their starch intake. This is a prime example of how eating like primates would not extract enough calories to live healthily. A problem for Women if on a primate diet of raw food can cause lack of Menstruation, with insufficient energy to support a pregnancy therefore posing a challenge in the evolutionary process. Biologically modern humans became dependant on cooking and at what point was this new technique discovered? Researchers believe this was a recent discovery at most 500,00 years old, cooking requires control of fire due to lack of archaeological evidence of fire hearths or purposefully built fires. Some Archaeologists believe that this may have happened earlier, anthropologist Richard Wrangham claimed cooking arose around 1.8milloin years ago. If cooking emerged this early, it could explain a defining feature of our species the increase of our brain size.

Technological advancement for the Hominins

Tool and weapon manufacturing with the use of fire was a major technological advancement for the hominins. To this end, Hominins were able to modify the effectiveness of their weaponry by fire hardening or proving object such as spears. A common material for stone tools was called silcrete found in various parts of the world. Silcrete is a hard stone with great flaking qualities but in its raw form can be of poor quality. A discovery was made in South Africa of a piece of silcrete embedded in a piece of ash. After this discovery the Archaeologists believed there must be a link between heating the silcrete and strengthening the tools, it also changed in colour.Raising the temperature can change the properties and colour of stones and other metals making them easier to flake. This made silcrete great material to work with, the heating process also showed that early humans began to command fire in a sophisticated manner. Scientists were puzzled because of the discoveries by of reddish fine-grained blades and axes found in prehistoric sites, none of the raw material was matched local silcrete from that area. The stone in its raw form was not suitable to make these advanced tools, a discovery of a silcrete flake 10 cm in diameter in a fire pit. This triggered a theory that ancient toolmakers were heating the stone to make tools. They, therefore, were able to alter how they hunted by lunging rather than throwing objects to maim or kill prey, are a far more effective method of hunting. It also allowed them to ambush prey by hiding in the new environment.

Controlled use of fire implications

Controlled use of fire had a significant impact socially, gathering around a fire at the end of the day, this would encourage hominins to communicate. This would encourage typical behaviour like playing with the children, grooming also removing twigs and dirt, ticks and leaves. As the social structure became larger this allowed Hominins to work together to maintain and fuel the fire, also providing a safer place for the Elderly and children.

Another important aspect of controlled fire is a cooling fire attracts fire loving insects and birds this provided a whole new form of hunting as well. These are known as pyrophilous or fire loving insects would be plentiful around a smouldering fire proving Hominins with another use of controlled fire. It also attracted larger prey to hunt for insects providing Hominins with another food source .

Apart from the tool making and cooking, controlled fire played a major role in the social aspect of early man, creating a distinction between those who could start and control fire and those who could not. The groups that could control fire had a definite advantage over the ones who did not, provided a bond, encouraging Early man to join the groups with fire. Within certain groups, men who learned how to control fire were possibly viewed as powerful men because of their ability to start a fire, just like the skilled hunters were given a position of superiority within their group.

The controlled fire became a community-building tool and became a vital role in creating spoken language, as humans realised the benefits of fire and those who could not make fire triggered small societies to be formed. These were a small step of early culture. Humans would gather together and interact on a more personal level, this would encourage a need for a spoken language. Even though communication was common practice in Early Humans, verbal communication was a better means than hand gestures or symbols. This also would allow a more descriptive, accurate or specific message amongst groups or individuals. The control of Fire was such an attractive force, in turn, it was a major role in the forming of smaller social groups which then became larger gatherings and became distinct in their lifestyles and daily practices. Without the use of controlled fire who knows how long it may have taken for the development of the social aspect in Early humans, the fire was a key to the process or spoken language.


Hominins and the controlled use of fire was a significant development in the evolution of the human species, it is without a doubt that the controlled use of fire made an important impact on the development of humans. With the ability to cook food with fire allowing a broader and healthier diet. This significantly assisted in the development of early humans. This was a pivotal point for Evolution. Controlled use of fire allowed a vast improvement in tool making using Hearths and fire pits being instrumental in the evolution of Hunting. This also gave early humans a broader variety to hunt which provide a varied healthier diet. The fire also provided cultural development, allowing groups to congregate daily. Providing warmth, shelter and helped the development of language as opposed to hand gestures or symbols. The controlled use of fire provided a very large contribution to the development and evolution of Early Hominins and perhaps the most significant discovery in the history of man.

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