Only when all con­tribute their fire­wood can they build up a strong fire.”

Chi­nese Proverb
Fire 549103 1920

Hominids are the only ani­mals able to cre­ate, con­trol and use fire

Fire helped to spark lan­guage and cul­ture. Soci­ety was born around a campfire.

Fire was being used by hominids at least 1-mil­lion years ago at Swartkrans in the Cra­dle of Humankind. Research on burnt bones found near stone arte­facts and bone tools from Swartkrans has revealed that the bones had been heat­ed to above 200˚ Cel­sius (390˚ Fahren­heit) — above the nor­mal tem­per­a­ture of a nat­ur­al bush fire. This per­haps rep­re­sents evi­dence for the con­trolled and sus­tained use of fire, though not nec­es­sar­i­ly the mak­ing of fire. Sci­en­tists believe that it was Homo ergaster that was able to con­trol and use fire at Swartkrans.

Hominids are the only ani­mals able to cre­ate, con­trol and use fire. The devel­op­ment of the abil­i­ty to do this was an impor­tant step in our evolution.

The use of fire helped our ances­tors sur­vive. It pro­vid­ed heat, light, shel­ter and pro­tec­tion from preda­tors and enabled them to cook and pre­serve food, and per­haps also sparked lan­guage and culture.

In Roman times, groups of slaves were tasked with spot­ting and putting out fires. But Napoleon Bona­parte is usu­al­ly cred­it­ed as the first to start a pro­fes­sion­al fire brigade, around 1800. This ear­ly fire-fight­ing team was formed from a divi­sion of the French army, to pro­tect the streets of Paris with pow­er­ful pumps.

The use of fire has enabled us to cre­ate machines and com­bus­tion-based trans­port that make our lives more com­fort­able and to explore our world and beyond.

The fire with­in us

From the ear­li­est times, fire has played a cen­tral part in myths and reli­gions, from the fire wor­ship of Zoroas­tri­an­ism in ancient Iran, to Greek mythol­o­gy and the leg­end of Prometheus, who stole the gift of fire and gave it to humans. In the Chris­t­ian and Hin­du reli­gions, fire is seen as both a cre­ative and a destruc­tive force, and at many mon­u­ments the eter­nal flame of fire sym­bol­is­es graves of unknown sol­diers and oth­ers fall­en in the ser­vice of their countries.

Even today, when we stare at a fire, there is some­thing mys­ti­cal about it – as if some­thing prim­i­tive from with­in calls us to stare into the fire and dream…

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