Were Humans the Earliest Users of Fire?
Assuming that human ancestors did learn their “use of fire” by observing the behavior of the birds and developed their knowledge to learn the “control and preservation of fire”, then the earliest users of fire might be a species of birds, which would then position humans are those who were more skilled in its control and diverse uses.
“The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.”
—Albert Einstein, In Einstein and Infeld, Evolution of Physics (1938)
From the exhibition panels of many natural history museums, we have learned that Homo erectus, or modern-day human beings, were the earliest users of fire (Fig. 1). However, is that the truth? Fire has played an irreplaceable role in the evolution of humans. It was used to scare away large predators during prehistoric times and to roast food to enhance human digestion and nutrient absorption, which are important for human brain and intellectual development.
Fig. 1 A theme showing “Homo erectus: the earliest user of fire,” on an exhibition panel in the Shanghai Natural History Museum. Credit: Jianguo Gao
Some Chinese idioms are used to describe the destructive effects of fire on animals, such as "Moths flying into fires" and "Phoenix nirvana", which deepen our impression that fire is harmful to most animals. Similarly, a French idiom “Getting chestnuts from the fire” tells us that some animals acquire their food using fire at great risk (Fig. 2). These idioms, derived from observations, show that animals are inextricably linked to fire. In addition, some animals are able to use fire intelligently and proactively. In the savanna of Northern Australia, the ecological knowledge passed down by aborigines reveals that some raptors, such as the Black Kite (Milvus migrans), Whistling Kite (Haliastur sphenurus), and Brown Falcon (Falco berigora), spread burning sticks from one place to another, with the aim of forcing their prey to have nowhere to escape, which would eventually become food in their mouth (Bonta et al., 2017).
Fig. 2 Feather in the Flames. Credit: Kallol Mukherjee
The veracity and intentionality of the spread of fire was vividly described by an Aboriginal man named Waipuldanya (Bonta et al., 2017), “I have seen a hawk pick up a smouldering stick in its claws and drop it in a fresh patch of dry grass half a mile away, then wait with its mates for the mad exodus of scorched and frightened rodents and reptiles.” Furthermore, another Aboriginal man described raptors that appeared to work together to purposely steal embers from an existing blaze to start a new fire some distance away.
Homo erectus may have lived as early as 2 Mya (but the evidence of fire use can currently only be traced back to 1.5 Mya) (Hlubik et al., 2017), while raptors have probably existed for 70 million years, and lived as long ago as the dinosaurs (Xu et al., 2014). Considering that birds are species that evolved much earlier than humans (Fig. 3), it is not yet certain whether our human ancestors observed and learned the techniques of using fire from birds. However, if the birds could spread fire intentionally for predation purposes, we should rethink our notions regarding the identity of the earliest users of fire. Even if we eventually prove that humans were later users of fire, this truth does not prevent human beings from being the most successful species on the planet.
Fig. 3 Relative evolutionary timeline of humans vs. birds; the other major vertebrates are also included for comparison. Some birds may have used fire for hunting ca. 70 Mya, while Human began using fire ca. 1.5 Mya. Credit: Jianguo Gao
It is important to highlight that our powerful learning ability is one of the most significant differences between us and other animals. If we define fire-use by birds for hunting as “use of fire”, then the “control of fire”, “preservation of fire”, i.e., the ability to create fire at will, and the subsequent knowledge and technology that are of great significance to human civilization and are the keys to urging humans to climb Earth's life pyramid of life. Assuming that human ancestors did learn their “use of fire” by observing the behavior of the birds and developed their knowledge to learn the “control and preservation of fire”, then the earliest users of fire might be a species of birds, which would then position humans are those who were more skilled in its control and diverse uses.
Bonta Mark, Gosford Robert, Eussen Dick, Ferguson Nathan, Loveless Erana & Witwer Maxwell. 2017. Intentional Fire-Spreading by “Firehawk” Raptors in Northern Australia. Journal of Ethnobiology, 37(4): 700-718.
Hlubik Sarah, Berna Francesco, Feibel Craig, Braun David & Harris John WK. 2017. Researching the Nature of Fire at 1.5 Mya on the Site of FxJj20 AB, Koobi Fora, Kenya, Using High-Resolution Spatial Analysis and FTIR Spectrometry. Current Anthropology, 58(S16): S243-S257.
Xu X, Zhou Z, Dudley R, Mackem S, Chuong CM, Erickson GM, Varricchio DJ. 2014. An integrative approach to understanding bird origins. Science, 346(6215): 1253293.