Firing the imagination
Fire has been a major shaping force in human evolution. It has allowed us to stay warm, to cook food and provided protection against predators. Now a new study suggests that it has done even more than all of thisâ€¦it has provided a mechanism for the evolution of society.
The current theory about the discovery of fire is that in a heated dispute as to who would mate with a particularly shapely (if somewhat hirsute) female, two male Neanderthals got into a rock throwing fight . One hurled a rock with such force, but inaccuracy, that it hit another rock causing sparks to fly into nearby dry grassland and so poor old Neanderthal-ette was forgotten and fire was discovered.
This explanation is of course totally fabricated here and is without value, so if you hear anyone spouting this nonsensical gibberish at a party then you know that they never read past the first two paragraphs of a story. The real story of fire is far more complex and under debate.
Modern humans arrived on the scene on this planet around 200,000 years ago but they arise from a heritage that goes back around four million years. Included in that lineage is Homo erectus who appeared around 1.8 million years ago. Around 600,000 years ago Neanderthals split off from the same Homo erectus predecessor and then died out around 35,000 years ago. So, modern humans and Neanderthals co-existed for quite a while. Some archaeologists claim that Homo erectus must have tamed fire around 1.6 million years ago in order to achieve the mental and physical evolution that it did while others attribute fire taming to Neanderthals around 400,000 years ago and others still credit it to modern humans around 12,000 years ago.
We might not know who first tamed fire and put it into an enclosure to cook food, create warmth, and provide light but we do know that this was a pivotal step in human evolution.
One researcher from the University of Utah noted that firelight offered whoever invented it the capacity to stay up and sit around the fire at night. To study what this might have meant to the people doing it she has analysed firelight discussion of !Kung Bushman, hunter-gatherers from Africaâ€™s Kalahari.
The researcher had tapes of conversations from earlier research in 1974 and also new data from 2011-2013. The intention was to analyse conversations held during the daylight hours and see how they differed, if at all, from conversations held around a campfire at night.
The results showed that during the day conversations were comprised as follows; 34 per cent complaints/criticism/gossip, 31 per cent economic matters (like hunting), 16 per cent jokes, and six per cent stories. Compare that to fireside conversation which showed as being comprised of 81 per cent stories, seven per cent complaints/criticism/gossip, and four per cent economic.
It seems that not only did fire liberate kilojoules from our food to allow our brain to flourish, it also gave a forum for that brain to reinforce social traditions and allow the imagination to wander. Out of that space created by fire we can suspect that the capacity to enquire arose, and our collective human mind rose to the heavens on the tendrils of campfire smoke. Our society and our vision was enabled by fire.
The researcher notes that non-human primates donâ€™t maintain ties outside of their immediate group. She believes that humans are able to form communities that are not together in space because of the liberation that fire has afforded.
Did Facebook really originate in the embers of a campfire thousands of years ago? Was our capacity to engage in Twitter or Instagram formed in the flames of a hunter-gatherer barbeque? Does lolling in front of the light of a screen allow the same expansion of consciousness as flickering flames? Or are these questions best left for a firelight conversation?