WHEN DID HOMINIDS CONTROL FIRE?
Up until very recently it was believed that hominids first began handling and controlling fires between 400 000 and 500 000 years ago as very good evidence for hearths which date back from this time period exist (1). This perspective has however changed more recently and some scientists now believe hominids started using fire 1.5 million years ago as new evidence relating to this time period, has been found at several different sites in Africa, Asia, Europe and the near East (2). The direct ancestor of modern humans, Homo erectus, is considered as being the first hominid to have controlled fire as this species lived from about 1.6 million to 300,000 years ago (3). This time period coincides with that of most of the evidence found, many of which include bones from this species.
The exact time when fire was first used is still under considerable debate as much of the evidence which suggests an early date for the advent of anthropogenic fires is inconclusive.
Types of evidence which suggest the presence of fire over an area at some point in the past include: burned deposits, hearths, fire-cracked rock, reddened areas, baked clay, ash, charcoal, fire-hardened wood, burned lithics, burned bone, and burned shell. All of these do however not always indicate the presence of an anthropogenic fire (4). According to James (1989), the presence of one of these types of evidence in an area may more likely indicate a fire resulting from natural causes while a combination of several types of evidence may indicate fires caused anthropogenically (2).
Whatever the time period, at which hominids gained control over fire, it is crucial to keep in mind that the advent of fire would ultimately be one of the most crucial aspects in the success of the hominid species and by controlling fire they would set themselves apart from on other living species. Fire would have allowed hominids to live in caves, provide protection against predators, enable them to cook food, stay warm during winter and possibly aid in improving their weapons. It may also have been crucial in their migration northwards to Europe, this is however only speculation (1).
These are some of the most controversial issues surrounding the first anthropogenic use of fire. This research will examine the body of evidence avaiable for first use of fire by hominids by considering how and when hominids came to control fire. It will also examine the accuracy of data suurounding the topic as well as give an account of the role fire played in the success and evolution of the hominid species.
(2) James SR (1989) Hominid use of fire in the middle and lower Pleistocene: A review of the evidence. Current Anthropology 30(1): 1-26
(4) Hamm K (2005) Evidence of Anthropogenic Fire, its Uses and Roles in Human Adaptability, http://www.as.ua.edu/ant/bindon/ant475/Papers/Hamm.pdf
Bevan Van Blommestein
Department of Biodiversity and Conservation Biology
University of the Western Cape
Private Bag X17