The first fire3 min read

Humans have always known fire. Even our primate ancestors must have seen it regularly, cutting through the bush after a lightning storm or flaring up at the edges of a lava flow. We humans have grown up beside fire, becoming ever more familiar with it, learning its ways and many uses, since before we were even human.

But at some point in our evolution – perhaps 250,000 years ago, perhaps a million years ago – something changed, and it altered our trajectory as a species irrevocably forever. At some point in the last million years or so, we learned to control fire, to harness it, to bend it our will. Rather than simply making use of it passively when we happened across it, we learned to create fire for ourselves. We learned to transport it and maintain and stoke vast bonfires that could last for an entire season. We quickly learned to use it to our advantage – clearing dense forests so that we could pass through, cooking food that may otherwise be impossible to digest, warming ourselves in the winter, offering better vision to us in the dark of night.

But the most pivotal shift didn’t occur until later, sometime around 250,000 B.C., when everything changed. At some point many millennia ago we discovered how to make our fire.

Up until this moment, humans were just another creature on the savannah struggling to make ends meet, competing for scarce resources, uncertain whether there was a space for it in the ecosystem of life. Sure, we had remarkably developed brains and could use them to our advantage, but we were still very much struggling to survive. We were in many ways a rather unremarkable and undistinguished member of our ecosystems.

But once we learned to make fire, everything changed. We could now use fire much more often and instantaneously in case of need and much more judiciously, saving fuel.

But perhaps most importantly, many now believe that being able to use fire whenever we wanted was a key factor in enabling the unprecedented, remarkable growth of our brains. Controlled fires allowed us to cook food. Eating cooked food allowed us to use less energy digesting foods. Excess energy allowed us to develop larger brains. Larger brains allow us to communicate more complex ideas with one another, engage in complex long-term planning, experiment with modifying various plants to our likings, and on and on and on. Reliably being able to make and maintain fires allowed us to reliably commit energy to expanding our minds.

Soon, in fact in a blink of an eye in evolutionary time, we flourished into the most complex, intelligent, capable, and dominant species the Earth has ever known.

I don’t think many would argue that it’s our minds and mental capacities that distinguish humans from the rest of life here on Earth. The human brain is perhaps the most complex and fascinating thing we’ve yet to come across. But it was our cultivation fire that enabled our incredible minds to grow and evolve.

It’s for this reason that I believe our cultivation of fire was the event when humans became fully human. The capabilities and capacities that sprung out of use of fire (and all the capabilities and capacities built on top of those) are those that most differentiate us from the rest of life on Earth.

Fire did not just warm our hearths and cook our food. It awakened our minds. It lit up our souls. It allowed us to tap into self-awareness and creativity unlike anything the world had ever seen. Our ancient human ancestors were our Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humanity to fuel civilization and progress.

Our cultivation of fire is what allowed us to grow into the humans we know ourselves as today. The advent of fire lit the symbolic fires of creativity and self-awareness within us that drive our evolution and growth to this day.

This fire is what I call “genius.”

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Peter Schulte is the founder and editor of Kindling. Peter is also Senior Digital Engagement Associate for the Pacific Institute and the UN Global Compact's CEO Water Mandate, connecting businesses to sustainable water practices. Peter holds a B.S. in Conservation and Resource Studies and a B.A. in Comparative Literature from University of California, Berkeley, and an M.B.A. in Sustainable Systems from Pinchot University. He lives in Bellingham, WA with his partner Sara, child Owen, and cat Winnie.

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