This site is not maintained. Click here for the new website of Richard Dawkins.


← Quest for Fire Began Earlier Than Thought

Pete H's Avatar Jump to comment 25 by Pete H

@Comment 23 by Helga Vierich

I don’t know anything about the chaparral, but we have more or less the same situation in Australia.

I read a great book by Tim Flannery: ‘The Future Eaters’ where he discusses that natural fires in Australia were once less frequent. (Apparently they can measure these things.) The vegetation was once more resistant to fire, but since the time when humans are believed to have first occupied Australia large areas have become more fire prone and the vegetation has adapted. E.g. trees drop small dry branches and oily leaves which easily burn every few years or so, with the effect of killing off competing saplings and other plants but not seriously damaging the mature trees. Plus there are much more fire-dependent plants around, like those which only cast off seeds in the heat of a bush fire.

In the preceding conditions it’s possible that larger animals hadn’t needed to escape bush fires. It’s different now, and affects the size of the animals. Smaller mammals can hide in holes and hollow logs. But even large Australian animals driving cars now have difficulty in getting away from bush fires. It wasn’t until the invention of the helicopter monsoon bucket that people have felt safe enough to live in the Australian bush without building fire resistant houses and having fire shelters in their houses. (Though they may need to rethink that owing to some recent disasters.)

One factor is that natural fires plus the fires started by the early aborigines were so frequent that the average fuel load in the bush didn’t accumulate significantly. Now that humans have evolved religions like environmentalism, the green movement, property development, and house flicking, routine burn offs are forbidden or discourage by the authorities because they temporarily impact the visual appeal and reduce property saleability for a couple of years. (This exceeds the investment time preference of city council officials, who tend to be heavily involved in property development and house flicking).

More recently most Australian city council budgets have been severely impacted via massive malinvestments in the US sub prime mortgage market. (Council financial controllers were like lambs to the slaughter for the American bank sales reps.) Consequently few bushfire prone Australian city councils can now afford routine burn-offs, even if their environmental protection policies allowed them. (I think that burn-offs mostly now depend on volunteers in the SES and rural fire service.) If anything councils are more desperate to encourage new replacement local taxpayers to establish themselves within their domain. Which requires cheaper housing standards. This all results in more people living in less fire resistant houses, at greater risk of huge fuel loads and extraordinary fire storms that kill everything, including the smaller mammals, larger trees, and some environmentalists. (City councillors are less affected because they tend to live out of the danger area, generally on the coast where they can anchor their ocean going launches.)

Australian aborigine fire stick farming may have been a response to the declining availability of easy meat, following the extermination of the mega fauna. A little like the NZ Maoris developing fishing nets in response to declining food following the extinction of the Moa. (Maori long net technology was later imported to northern Europe by sealers, which enabled the European fishing industry - now extinct I think).

But I think my main point is that once people start working with wood it becomes obvious that wood gets hot with friction. Our ancestors have been using wooden and stone tools for longer than they’ve been human. And as soon as people develop wood working crafts they automatically have fire starters, the simplest and easiest being the fire plough.

There are skilled people around who can use a fire plough to start a fire quicker than an unskilled person can use a match. But there’s much more to staring a fire even than just striking a match. Most of the effort is in the preparation. Gathering firewood, making feather sticks, kindling, etc. is hard work. Smoking up the fire plough is easy in comparison. So there’s no real advantage in transporting fire or any dependency on finding natural sources of combustion.

The evidence of wooden tools used by our earliest ancestors would not be preserved. So the focus tends to be on the stone hand axes etc. But tools like hand axes would have been involved in much more than just butchering meat. E.g. shaving sticks for kindling, shaping fire plough implements, and splitting branches for dry wood in the rain etc. Plus forming spear tips, shelters etc. Where there are stone tools there would be all kinds of wood working going on. And wood working implies hot wood which implies fires. Plus, with the right kind of stone, you can generate sufficient sparks to burn just about anything. It’s reasonable to assume that such technology and stones would have been traded over a very wide area.

And one other interesting detail about our ancestor’s use of fire is that it is a means of isolating fat from animal food. Liquid fat dripping off a cooking carcass can be captured and bottled in large seed pods or leather pouches. So it doesn’t have to be eaten directly to be conveniently stored for a very long time. It’s an ideal form of highly concentrated and easily portable food energy that enables extremely long journeys, plus has other uses for rain-proofing clothes, starting fires in the rain, etc. So the adoption of fire technology by our ancestors also greatly extends their geographical range of activity, which implies more reliable access to food and other resources, plus enabling more integrated trade with all other people and the spreading of humans everywhere.

This aspect is often overlooked because of the confusion about nutrition science and the erroneous linking of fat consumption with disease. It turns out that fat is the primary source of energy fuel in humans, not carbohydrates and protein as has been erroneously (and apparently irreversibly) established. This makes sense because a mostly carbohydrate or protein diet is not compatible with prolonged endurance exercise without ready access to food.

Sun, 08 Apr 2012 23:58:32 UTC | #933153