PROMETHEUS AND PREHISTORY: Fire and Human Origins
From Dr. Francesco Berna of Boston University
The ability to control fire is undoubtedly a crucial turning point in human evolution, but to date there is no consensus as to when humans first developed this ability. According to Richard Wrangham’s “cooking hypothesis,” the cranial and digestive tract anatomy of Homo erectus indicates that this group of early humans was already adapted to a diet based on cooked food and therefore was capable of controlling fire. Recent phylogenetic studies on non-human and human primates of body mass, feeding time, and molar size support the hypothesis of the adoption of a cooked diet at least as early as the first appearance of Homo erectus around 1.9 Myr.
Yet to date, the archaeological evidence for controlled use of fire in association with Homo erectus is scant and inconclusive, as pointed out in a recent review of the archaeological record by Wil Roebroeks and Paola Villa. They suggest that Homo erectus may have used fire occasionally but not habitually. On the other hand, archaic Neanderthals and Homo sapiens were the first to control fire and use it to survive in the glacial landscapes of Europe and Asia. Indeed, macroscopic and microscopic evidence from the archaic Homo sapiens site of Qesem Cave in Israel convincingly show that by about 350 kyr ago humans were producing fire regularly inside the cave.
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From Dr. John Shea of Stony Brook University
Fire is a physical reaction that results when suitable fuel and oxygen are brought together and exposed to heat. Controlled use of fire by humans (“anthropogenic fire”) is a behavioral universal. All known historical and ethnographic human groups make and use fire. No other living species controls fire.
Earlier societies recognized the importance of fire and explained it in supernatural terms, as a gift from the Greek Titan, Prometheus, or as a prize stolen by the Inuit hero, Raven. Early scientific accounts of human origins, and some recent ones as well, view fire as a transformative force, something that changed ancestral hominins into us. As scientists, archaeologists base our hypotheses about prehistoric behavior, including the use of fire, on what we know about source of behavioral variability among recent humans. Humans use fire as a strategy for releasing latent energy from the environment. All strategies have benefits and costs. One cannot understand the one without the other.
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