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In the search for what made us human, a new take on the importance of fire
Sky Valley Chronicle Exclusive

May 18, 2011

Image of our early ancestors in daily life around the all important campfire. CLICK TO ENLARGE

The great Rift Valley in Tanzania, the cradle of humanity. CLICK TO ENLARGE

Michael Medler’s new article titled , “Speculations about the effects of fire and lava flows on human evolution.” CLICK TO ENLARGE AND READ
(BELLINGHAM, WA) -- Somewhere long ago rolled back into the ancient mists of time are key players in a long life or death drama.

The players in that drama are those things, places and beings that molded us, shaped us, helped create that which we now see ourselves as – modern Homo sapiens.

One of those elements is fire.

In a piece titled “A brief history of fire and its uses,” Ed Semmelroth of www.antiquestoves.com writes:

“No remains of man's art show him without fire as his companion. Much later in the scheme of things he invented processes for making fire artificially.

Many of the legends or myths relating to the origin of fire are vivid and dramatic, and while they vary in detail there appears to be a similarity in many of the episodes that form the fire-origin story in all countries of the world.

Stealing fire from the gods, one of the first incidents, was made more or less exciting by the strategy employed in acquiring, it.

Prometheus, for example, stole fire from the heavens in a hollow tube."

There it is, perhaps. A clue.

Ancient legends of fire being “vivid and dramatic.” Fire stolen “in a hollow tube.”

Around 200 million years ago changes in the interactions between animals, plants and fire caused the Earth's oxygen levels to drop to about 21 percent of the atmosphere, as it is today.

Fifteen to 5 million years ago scientists think the world's grassland communities developed -- with fire being a crucial component in leading to new forms of life including large grazing animals…and us humans.

Although no one knows exactly where and when our ancestors first discovered and then harnessed fire, there is one man at Western Washington University who spends a fair amount of time thinking about that moment.

And he has arrived at a rather interesting idea that those legends of fire being “vivid and dramatic” and stealing fire from the Gods “in a hollow tube,” may indeed have a basis is fact.

It could be that our ancestors first learned about, and then found ways to use fire from molten lava flows coming from volcanoes.

Have you ever seen or been inside a lava “tube”?

Do you think an ancient ancestor of ours snatching bits of red hot molten lava in order to create a small fire to warm the family and cook food, might lead to tales generations later around a campfire that would be “vivid and dramatic”?


Western Washington University associate professor of Environmental Studies Michael Medler, a self-confessed “pyro-geographer” (he was a firefighter in the 80’s and has studied fire his entire life), has recently published a new hypothesis about factors that influenced human evolution.

Medler proposes that long-burning fires caused by lava flows in the African Rift Valley may actually have played a significant role in our human evolution – making us who we are today.

His research on the subject, “Speculations about the effects of fire and lava flows on human evolution,” appears in the most recent issue of the online journal Fire Ecology.

You can read the full report by clicking on the PDF file icon to the upper right

Medler’s research contributes to an emerging notion that our human evolution has been greatly influenced by fire, as humans are unique in the animal kingdom because of our ability to make fire.

He goes on to propose that many of the other attributes that separate us from other primates may be evolutionary adaptations that resulted from small groups living close to the fires at the leading edges of lava flows in the African Rift Valley.

“I’ve been working on it (the idea of humans and fires in the Rift Valley) for a few years now and I’ve been thinking about fire and human evolution for about ten years,” said Medler during an interview with SkyValleyChronicle.com

What galvanized Medler’s thought on the lava flow angle to evolution and pushed it along was the 2009 book “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human,” by Harvard’s Richard Wrangham.

That book concluded that because humans require cooked food in order to survive in the wild, we are biologically dependent on the control of fire.

He argues that our ancestral association with fire became obligatory by the time of Homo erectus (one of our most important ancestors) 1.9 million years ago.

Why was fire so hugely important in our long development?


Because access to fire meant, among many other things, cooked food which then freed more caloric energy, leading to the development of humans’ uniquely short intestines, small mouths, and most importantly, larger brains

Medler speculates that long before humans learned to make fire, small groups may have evolved many adaptations to living near the fires that would be constantly burning as lava flows poured into the internal basins of the African Rift.

These lava flows could have provided ongoing sources of heat and ignition for these groups of hominids for thousands of years at a time.

His article outlines how the location of important early human ancestors coincides with the timing and location of many lava flows.

“This ‘pyrogenesis hypothesis’ combines the ideas of other researchers, but introduces lava flows as a specific mechanism to explain our unique evolutionary history,” said Medler.

“I have thought these ideas about human evolution and fire make a lot of sense but the missing element has always been the source of flame. Brush fires and things like that were never a very satisfying way to think about where humans would have been exposed to fire,” added Medler.

And why would brush fires ignited by lightning not be the very first source of humans using and harnessing fire in a new way?

“Once you’re smart enough to do that (harness fire from a lightning strike and carry it around from camp to camp as a burning ember to use for later, larger fire starting), that makes sense,” says Medler.

“The question is how did we develop this affinity for fire and cooked food until we got smart enough to tend it, much less move it around? That’s what I’m trying to answer. There’s a chicken and egg story there of how do you get smart enough to make or move fire without fire?”

Point being: it would take a very smart, large brained animal that had access to lots of resources to be smart enough to do that.

And some scientists think that large brain thing (the result of that access to fire thing) led to our ancestors creating language so they could all communicate easily.

Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist and specialist in primate behavior, argues that Archaic Homo sapiens were the first to use language.

Based on his analysis of the relationship between brain size and hominid group size, he concluded that because Archaic Homo sapiens had large brains, they must have lived in groups of over 120 individuals and he further argues that it was flat not possible for Hominids to live in such large groups without using language, otherwise there could be no group cohesion and the group would disintegrate.

By comparison, chimpanzees live in smaller groups of up to 50 individuals.

Thus the equation becomes: no access to fire = no cooked food = no development of larger brains = no language = the chance that we humans ever evolve into what we are today ain’t all that great.


Now back to the point that it would take a very smart, large brained animal that had access to lots of resources to be smart enough to harness, use and carry around fire and that was brainpower our early ancestors did not have.

Enter now immediate access to ongoing fire from lava flows to cook, warm the family, keep from freezing in the winter and other things and you end up getting that brain power that develops from being able to eat cooked food because food that is cooked frees up calories that, before cooked food, would have to be used for chewing and digesting all day.

“The argument is that our ancestors having continued access to fire allowed them to eat cooked food which freed up literally about a dozen hours a day from chewing.” adds Medler.

Without fire our ancestors would have had to spend most of the day chewing raw food just to get enough nutrients to survive.

What Medler is working on now is searching to find out if the locations scientists believe our ancestors were first appearing in Africa tend to be correlated with lava flows that were occurring at the time.

“So far I have offered one particular point of evidence that shows at the same time homo erectus was appearing in Africa around 1.8 million years ago, right in that same area was a very large lava flow (over a 200,000 year period) that flowed more or less continuously into the Olduvai Gorge (in the Rift Valley in Tanzania) and the volcanism in the gorge is different than a lot of volcanism we see in other places because the lava flows are literally filling up giant valleys.”

Which means thousands of years of our early ancestors (right as homo erectus was emerging on the scene) having quick, direct access to fire for cooking food right smack dab in the middle of the place we now believe to be (thanks to all those bones and other stuff in the ground) the cradle of humanity.

So think about that this summer as you and the family are hunkered down around a campfire roasting weenies in one of the Sky Valley’s fine campgrounds with darkness all around and the occasional howl of a Sasquatch far off in the distance.

And remember kids...you read it here first.

There will be a test on Monday.



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