Sunday, March 13, 2016

First Technology: The Invention of Fire




“1.5 million years ago…a band of hominids kindled a fire on the African savanna and realized it was a good night light as well as a heater.”  --US News, “Lighting the Way” (May 26, 2001), 47



We think of ourselves as living in an age of life-changing technological advances. But do they really change our lives?  The Internet may enable us to cheaply and instantly communicate worldwide, but it was the invention of writing about 5,000 years ago that made such communication possible. The Internet just adds more speed to the equation, as did the telegraph and the telephone before it.


The fact is that all our personal technology are just tools to speed up behaviors that we have been doing since before modern humans walked the earth. We’re so fascinated by the ethnographic dazzle that we don’t think about the fact that you have to track back millennia to antiquity to find a truly life-changing innovation.   


Back in 2013, the November issue of The Atlantic asked a panel of 12 experts - scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, historians of technology, and others - to list innovations that have shaped the nature of modern life. All qualifiers for the list had to appear after the widespread use of the wheel, about six thousand years ago.


That ruled out fire, which our hominid forebears started controlling about 350,000 years ago. That’s pre-modern human. We don’t think about fire very much these days, but we should, because it was literally the first “life-changing” innovation. It did more than act as a “night light as well as a heater” because the very mastery of fire itself changed us from hominid into human.        


Fire grew our brains. It allowed us to cook our food, which meant we could eat and absorb more protein. Bigger brains meant we could now dominate the planet and invent civilization through mastery of technology and science.  Not bad for openers. Of course we can think of fire as the gift we gave ourselves just by borrowing and controlling a natural force bent to the human will and purposes.


Fire made us who we are in creating a new world that crossed from day into evening through the night, providing the light and warmth of the communal hearth.  Cooking, energy, defense against man and beast, the communal hearth, taking back the night.  This proto-invention turned homo erectus into homo sapiens, the only surviving species of the primate tribe Hominini.


Fire was our first keystone technology--the creative platform for every other to follow that jump-started our collective mastery of tools, nature, and the arts.



400,000 years ago, in the Low Acheulian period, homo erectus controlled fire in a gradual process of progressive mastery, like culture itself, that marked the earliest homo sapiens.  In fact, this was mankind’s first tool, and it was an awesome one: literally a force of nature.  It was the proto-invention that from that time on made all others possible.  Control over fire and water, the twin elements of human survival, were the first achievements of the brain and body that carried the human race forward to dominate the world. 


We think of technology as electronic attributes of the modernity.  Yet the greatest inventions came far before, through the ancient world, and in the case of fire, pre-homo sapiens nearly half a million years before that.


My partner once flew southeast east from London to Nairobi crossing the Sudan on a moonless night. He described the ground lighting. Below was just blackness, no cities, no roads, no sign of life. Except for one thing. Even from 35,000 feet you couldn’t miss them.  They were like bright orange embers embedded against the blackness.   They were like nothing he had seen before from the window of a jetliner.  They were campfires alight across the vast plain of the Sudan. Each one an island of light and warmth and safety in the cold black desert. 


Here was the ancient and original lighting: thousands, maybe millions of years old, and still lighting up the night to protect from predators, provide warmth, and most important, provide the center for the “circle of life” – our earliest ancestral sites of safety, disclosure, unburdening, sharing of ideas, plans, hopes, dreams, fears, and the future. 


Campfires are among the earliest of all human relics.  The oldest are, like the ones visible from the air, on the African plains, the birthplace of human history.  Campfires have played and continue (in other formats) to play a central role in our lives as the focal point of human life, as the most social of all primates. 


David E. Nye’s book Technology Matters (2006) elaborates on the origins of technology in the first adaptations of fire that made it a human talent.  The long human evolution of tool-making began with this single element by the makers of fire.  In the creation of fire control, Cicero pointed to man’s ability to “create a second nature.”  All of science, and the understanding of the physical world, arose from the first flame of the campfire.  


Like the power of writing much later, fire was transformative, the original power-tool transformer, external to the human brain and muscle.  The terms hearth, health, heat, and heart do not just invoke one another by sounding alike; they are all linked together in language, the shorthand for abstract thinking to express these closely connected concepts.


The earliest evidence of fire under the hand of humans is in scorched stone remains and in the remnants of habitation flooring. Outdoors, proto-humanoids had found a magical circle, that of the communal campfire, from which to view their world, their circle, and the skies, stars, and planets at the same time.  The stage setting of the circle of life is in faces lit by the fire’s warmth, looking out through the glow into other faces. 


The lighting industry tries to duplicate the original low lighting of the campfire with dimmer switches and LED candles.  Low lighting is a signal of safety, calm, intimacy, connection; it heightens awareness, dilates the eyes, making them appear more interesting and alluring, especially across the sexes, and awakens the senses in general, including touch, taste, and hearing.  The dimming of auditorium lights signals the start of a new mode of thinking with the first words of the speaker on the podium; it refreshes attention and attitude, relieving the action cast of mind tuned to direct sunlight at midday.


Associated with night in a protected situation, the campfire is the heart of the introverted human soul, keyed to connection and contemplation over extended periods of time.  It recalls the seminar, for deeply connected thinking with others, as well as in-depth introspection possible only under the solo thinking style.  It is introspective in its energy, and at the same time the essence of the bonding glow between people, relaxing their guard in a common focus of warmth, light, and security.


The campfire galvanized the deep ties between food and sociability.  Social occasions far into the future would include warmth, light, and food – the aromas and visual stimulus that feature in carnival and ceremonies, from the most exuberant to the solemnity of oaths taken by torch or candle.  The light of religious faith as votives, and candlelit dinners for romance.

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