by Rishika Kannan
One aspect that separates humans from any other species on the planet is our ability to control fire. The use of fire has become so important in our everyday lives and led to unique behaviours such as cooking our food, using it in religious/cultural rituals, and using it as a light source. Upon further analysis it is observed that the element of fire has been critical to making us who we are today. This article will look into how fire has shaped the world we live in today.
Darwin believed that fire and language were two of the greatest discoveries of mankind (Adler, 2013). Imagine a world without either of them, would we really be considered humans? If you think about engines, fuel, heating, all need the important element: fire. It is impossible to track when fire was first used by our species. However, there is evidence of the use of stone and wood to create heat in North Kenya 2.6 to 3.3 Ma (Gowlet, 2016). Researchers postulate that humans observed fire being made through lightning strikes and were inspired to learn how to use it (Gowlet, 2016).
Fire was first used as a source of heat, but later it was realised that it can be a resource to cook food. It has been observed that animals tend to pick food that has been accidentally cooked in fire as it is more easily digestible (Gowlet, 2016). Werneka and Rosati (2015), conducted cooking experiments with chimpanzees. They hypothesized that chimpanzees had the brain capacity to cook, however they lacked the control of fire. Their experiments showed that not only did chimpanzees understand the cooking process but that they preferred it and would delay eating gratification to cook their food.
According to Wrangham’s cooking hypothesis, heating our food was revolutionary in making us the beings we are today. Homo sapiens naturally had smaller teeth and weaker jaws, making it harder to eat raw meat. Hence, there was a biological need to find a food source that would nourish our bodily needs and be easily digestible. Researchers noticed that around the Pleistocene period (2.6Ma) the human brain size considerably increased. The only explanation for this could be that there were calories to spare due to food being eaten and digested much faster as a result of cooking (Wrangham, 2017). This is because cooking reduced eating time by breaking down starch in plants and collagen and tissue in meat. Hence, humans were able to figure out that cooking their food gave them the required nutrients and was digested quickly and efficiently.
As we know cooking later evolved into a culture in itself where more than the actual cooking, the taste of the food mattered. While the evolution of spice and our acquired taste can be the next logical part to discuss, this article focuses on how fire aided our development. The next major recorded use of fire was in rituals and areas of worship. To understand the origin of the use of fire in rituals we would have to look into the beginning of culture and tradition which is a whole other chapter in itself. However, the gist is that researchers postulate that as civilizations began to form, there needed to be certain characteristics to unite the group of people such as religion, culture etc. One tradition common to many cultures was the worship of fire- one of the only elements that could not be polluted or affected by man’s work (Cox, 2019). Groups such as the Aboriginals, Hindus, Japanese, Buddhists all used fire to purify, heal, spiritually connect and sacrifice with the hopes of the betterment of their respective society (Cox, 2019). Hence, we can see a shift of fire being used for mere survival to a more cosmic need.
The last aspect I wanted to address was the misuse of fire. As is written in many scriptures and literature, fire has brought many benefits and boons, but it can also destroy and become uncontrollable. Pyromania, as described in DSM-5, is an impulse control disorder- it is when a person experiences the inability to control the urge to start a fire. It is a very rare disorder with limited research conducted with regards to it (Johnson, 2007). However, it is food for thought- why did poor impulse control lead to the use of fire? Is it because of its accessibility, its pure form, or maybe the power it reflects and its sheer potential?
Therefore, fire has been imperative in human evolution. Starting off with increasing the chances of our survival, to the expansion of our brain size, moving to giving us spiritual purpose and protection in life to finally being involved in the new era of mental health. Not to mention the role it played in the industrial revolution to which our civilization would be inefficient without. On a more mystical side, fire has been something that has been carried, unchanged throughout the lifetime of mankind; as the American philosopher Langer puts it, “Fire is a natural symbol of life and passion, though it is the one element in which nothing can actually live” (‘Libquotes’).
Adler, J. (2013). Why Fire Makes Us Human. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-fire-makes-us-human-72989884/
Cox, D. (2019). Ritual of Fire. Drsaritaelizabeth.com.https://drsaritaelizabeth.com/ritual-of-fire/.
Gowlett, J. (2016). The discovery of fire by humans: a long and convoluted process. Philosophical Transactions Of The Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 371(1696), 20150164. doi:10.1098/rstb.2015.0164
Johnson S. & Netherton E. (2017). Fire Setting and the Impulse-Control Disorder of Pyromania | American Journal of Psychiatry Residents’ Journal. (2021). American Journal Of Psychiatry Residents’ Journal. Retrieved from https://psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.ajp-rj.2016.110707.
Wrangham, R. (2021). Control of Fire in the Paleolithic Evaluating the Cooking Hypothesis. Journals.uchicago.edu.https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdfplus/10.1086/692113#:~:text=The%20cooking%20hypothesis%20posits%20that,of%20novel%20digestive%20adaptations%20and
(2020)Playing with Fire: a look into a study on chimpanzees and their food. Future Science Leaders. https://www.futurescienceleaders.com/blog/2020/04/playing-with-fire-a-look-into-a-study-on-chimpanzees-and-their-food/