Fire Research Paper

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Humans learned to control fire at least 400,000 years ago. Cooking over fire increased the variety of foods. Fire kept dangerous animals away from campgrounds and warmed living spaces so humans could leave tropical Africa and spread round the Earth; people burned dry vegetation as they migrated to improve hunting and thereby changed natural ecological balances. No single skill did so much to expand human power over nature.

The history of humankind is closely connected with the history of fire—so closely that the connection has become almost reciprocal. Of course, fire is much older than humankind; but ever since humans learned to exert some control over it, the frequency of fire and, even more, its manifold forms have increasingly been determined by human activities. Of all the fires burning on the planet Earth today, only a tiny portion have “natural” causes; in the great majority of cases the source of ignition has been human—intentionally or unintentionally.

These observations raise a whole range of intriguing problems concerning the history of the relationship between humankind and fire. How did this relationship begin? What were the conditions that made it possible? What were the feedback effects or functions that sustained it? How has the connection between humans and fire affected the course of history?

Our image of the first phases in the human domestication of fire was long dominated by mythology—as if the stories about Prometheus or other culture heroes who allegedly had stolen fire from the gods were the last word. Today we know better: with the aid of ecology and archaeology, of anthropology and sociology, it is possible to reconstruct the general trajectory of the historical relationship between humans and fire.


Like all natural forces, fire has a history. Chemically, fire is a process of highly accelerated oxidation of matter (fuel) induced by heat (ignition). Three conditions are necessary for it to occur: oxygen, fuel, and heat. During the first eons in the history of the Earth, at least two of these—oxygen and fuel—were absent. Oxygen did not become available in the atmosphere until life emerged between three and four billion years ago. And it was less than half a billion years ago, during the Devonian geological age, when life assumed the form of plants, providing matter suitable for burning. From then on, most places on Earth with seasonally dry vegetation were regularly visited by fire, ignited on rare occasions by falling rocks, volcanic eruptions, or extraterrestrial impacts, but mostly by lightning.

Its domestication by humans opened an entirely new episode in the history of fire. Humans thoroughly altered the incidence and intensity of fires. They brought fire to regions of the planet where it seldom or never burned spontaneously, and they tried to banish it from places where without human interference it would have burned repeatedly. Thus, increasingly, “natural” fire receded and made way to “human,” or, more precisely, anthropogenic fire.

Wherever humans migrated, they took their fire along. The presence of humans-with-fire deeply altered the landscape, including flora and fauna. The human impact is amply documented (though still controversial) for Australia—a continent that was colonized by humans rather late. Everywhere on the planet, areas such as rain forests, deserts, and the polar regions that were not receptive to fire proved to be hard to penetrate for humans too.

A Human Monopoly

Humans are the only species which has learned to manipulate fire. Control over fire has become a “species monopoly,” with an enormous impact on other species, both animals and plants, and on the civilizing process of humanity itself.

Evidence about the very first phase of the domestication of fire is insufficient and open to various interpretations. The most conservative estimates are from archaeologists who hold that the oldest undisputable evidence of human control of fire can be dated back at most 250,000 years. Other scholars, such as primatologist Richard Wrangham, argue that Homo erectus may already have been tending the remains of natural fires as long as 1.8 million years ago. According to the anthropologist Francis Burton, the turning point may be dated at even 5 to 6 million years.

While acknowledging these controversies over the actual chronology of the first domestication of fire, we can still draw up some defendable propositions about its “phaseology”—the succession of phases. Three phases can be distinguished. During the first phase, there were no human (or hominid) groups possessing fire; there were only groups without fire. Then, there must have been a second phase, when there were both groups with fire and groups without fire. We do not yet know how long this phase lasted, but we do know that it was a transitional stage, leading up to the phase in which humankind has now been living for thousands of generations: the phase when there are no longer any groups without fire. For many thousands of generations, all human groups have been groups with fire.

The three phases are connected by two transitions. The first transition was marked by the initial domestication of fire by some human or hominid groups. Apparently they found it worthwhile not just to forage at the smoldering remains of a natural fire, but to see to it that the fire kept burning. They tended it, they protected it against rain, and they “fed” it with fuel. None of these activities were programmed in their genes; they had to be learned, and then transmitted, as traits of culture. But the capacity to learn all this had to be there, as a set of traits acquired in biological evolution. Those traits included physical features such as a bipedal gait, flexible hands, and a complex brain, as well as concomitant mental and social features such as an ability to cooperate and to defer immediate gratification for the sake of consciously conceived goals.

Considering this combination of requisite traits we may find it almost self-evident that the control of fire became a monopoly, uniquely held by humans. The full significance of the monopoly can only be appreciated, however, if we regard it also in connection with the second transition, in which the monopoly became universally human. Whereas earlier hominid, and possibly human, groups had been able to survive without fire for many thousands of generations, a time came when apparently that was no longer possible.

If this sketch of phases and transitions is realistic (and it is hard to imagine why it should not be), it leaves us with an unavoidable conclusion: human societies with fire were in the long run more “fit to survive” than societies without fire. If we then ask why all societies without fire eventually disappeared, there seems to be only one plausible answer: because they had to coexist with societies with fire—and in the long run that proved impossible.

Implied in this line of reasoning is the idea that a change in some human groups led to changes in other human groups. If Group A had fire, and the neighboring Group B did not, Group B had a problem. It could either try to minimize contact with Group A, or do as Group A had done and adopt a fire regime—which should not pose insurmountable difficulties as long as the potential to learn from the other group was sufficient.

In terms of its formation and spread, the fire regime may be regarded as a paradigm for other regimes developed at later stages in human history—a paradigm in more than one sense. First of all, the regime by which humans learned to extend their care of and control over fire could subsequently serve as a model for taking care of and controlling other nonhuman natural resources such as plants and animals. Secondly, we may regard the domestication of fire as a model case in a “heuristic” or methodological sense, since it shows us some basic principles which are at work in social evolution and human history.

Hearths and Torches

The establishment of the species monopoly of control over fire amounted to a big step in the differentiation of behavior and power between humans and related animals, ranging from other primates to wolves or mammoths. As a new item in the behavioral repertory, tending fire tilted the interspecies balance of power greatly toward human dominance. The original breakthrough may have been precarious and fraught with risks; but it had far-reaching consequences—which were, of course, unforeseeable at the time. The history of the domestication of fire clearly illustrates the intertwining of intentional actions and unintended effects.

Fire became the focus of human group life in the form of the hearth. Here fire was tended and thus kept regularly available so that group members no longer had to go searching for it. Around the hearth they could create small enclaves in the wilderness where the nights were less cold and dark and which offered some protection against predators. On the fire itself they could cook their food—again a form of behavior which, like the domestication of fire upon which it is based, is both uniquely and universally human. Through the destructive force of fire, substances that otherwise would be too tough to eat, or even poisonous, could be made edible and palatable—a good example of “production through destruction” (or, to use the economist Joseph Schumpeter’s term, “creative destruction”).

A second way in which fire was used from early on was by lighting the end of a stick in the hearth and turning it into a torch. Torches could be applied to burn down dry vegetation, thus clearing land and making it safer and more hospitable for human habitation. Many prairies and similar secondary grasslands in various parts of the world were created by such burning practices. On a smaller scale, but no less effectively, humans could apply their torches to scare away big predators. Caves long inhabited by bears or hyenas were taken over by humans armed with fire.

Fire and Socioecological Transformations

If fire was the first great socioecological transformation in human history, it was a precondition for two more that followed: agrarianization and industrialization. Both were far more momentous in scope, but neither would have been possible without fire.

The rise of agriculture and animal husbandry, or “agrarianization,” in many respects resembled the domestication of fire. Humans added new sources of energy to their own as they had done before by taming fire, this time by incorporating specific plants and animals into their societies. Certain wild plants were cultivated, certain wild animals were tamed, and all these species were made part of the human domain, the anthroposphere.

In most parts of the world, the conversion of savannahs and forests into fields and meadows was accomplished by means of fire. Flames and smoke marked the frontiers of agrarianization—as they still do today in Amazonia and elsewhere. Often agriculture remained closely associated with burning, as in the widespread practice of swidden farming, or shifting cultivation, in which tracts of land would be periodically burned and cultivated and left fallow again for a number of years, in a cyclical sequence.

Many agrarian societies passed through a phase of shifting cultivation, but then adopted more intensive techniques of working the land with higher average yields. As these societies gave rise to villages and towns, new uses of fire and new attitudes toward fire developed. During the long first phase of human fire use, the main concern always had been to keep the communal fire burning. In the agrarian towns, however, fire was no longer scarce. Its uses became increasingly more varied. Specialized pyrotechnic crafts emerged, such as blacksmithing and pottery. Public concern now turned mainly to keeping the many fires within their containers. Fire was regarded with greater anxiety, for with the proliferation of fires the risks of conflagrations increased, and with the accumulation of property, people had more to lose. Not surprisingly, blazes figure prominently in the local histories of towns and villages.

Of course, the eventual cause of destruction always lay in the very nature of the combustion process. But with the progressive domestication of fire, this natural force manifested itself more and more through manmade fires. With all the lamps and furnaces burning in a city, one moment of carelessness might spark a conflagration. People had to rely on other people’s caution. Arson ranked second only to murder as a capital crime deserving the severest punishment. Among the worst fears of both farmers and city dwellers was to become the victims of organized murder and arson known as war.

In the cities of medieval Europe it was mandatory to “cover” all fires before nightfall: an institution known as couvre feu, or curfew. The directive to cover fire almost symbolizes a general tendency in urban environments toward reducing the omnipresence of fire, and certainly toward making it less conspicuous. That tendency was interrupted for a while, however, by the onset of industrialization.

The Industrial Age

A highly significant, but rarely noticed, aspect of the original domestication of fire was the invention of fuel—the discovery that dead wood, seemingly worthless material lying around to rot, could be most valuable if it was used for burning. No other animal ever made this discovery. Nor did any other animal ever learn the great potential of fossil fuels.

During the ten thousands years of agrarianization, wood remained by far the most important fuel. This was to change dramatically in the course of the two hundred and fifty years of industrialization, starting in the early eighteenth century, when ways were discovered of exploiting other sources of fuel as well: coal, oil, gas.

Industrialization began, like agrarianization, with great displays of fire. Its frontiers were marked by the fire and smoke of steam engines driven by burning coal. Humankind was entering, to use the image of Rolf-Peter Sieferle, a newly discovered “subterranean forest,” containing the fossil remains of hundreds of millions of years of organic growth, stocked in the mantle of the Earth as unburned fuel.

Industrialization was the third great ecological transformation brought about by humans. It involved, once again, the tapping of newly exploited natural resources—first coal, later also oil and natural gas—and incorporating these into human society, as had been done before with fire and with certain selected plants and animals.

Just like the transition to agriculture, when forests were burned down to create fields and meadows, the rise of modern industry was heralded by a huge and conspicuous use of fire. The familiar pictures of the early industrial landscape in Lancashire readily evoke the manifest ubiquity of fire, with smoke rising from the factory stacks at day, and a red glow illuminating the sky at night.

As industrialization advanced, fire continued to be important in practically every variety of industrial production; but its presence has become less prominent. The vital combustion processes tend to be hidden away, in the furnaces of power stations or under the hoods of motorcars. Partly as a result of this general tendency, cities in the advanced industrial world today are far better protected against the risks of fire than were preindustrial cities. The incidence of conflagrations in peacetime is much smaller now than it used to be until a few centuries ago. In times of war, however, the twentieth century has seen urban blazes of unprecedented size and intensity.

Current Developments

Ancient Greek cosmologists used to distinguish four elements out of which the world was composed: earth, water, air, and fire. While earth, water, and air are indispensable for all land animals, only humans have also come to rely upon fire. Furthermore, all known human groups have done so. The use of fire is not just an exclusively human attribute; it continues to be universally human as well.

In retrospect, we can detect a clear sequence in the history of humans and fire. First, there were no groups with fire. Then there were some with fire, but still none with fields cultivated for agriculture and animal husbandry. Then, there were some with fire and fields, but none with factories for large-scale industrial production. Today, all human groups take part in a socioecological regime extending over the entire planet, involving fire, fields, and factories.

For thousands of generations, the control of fire has deeply affected the human condition. It has made human groups, on the one hand, more productive and robust, but at the same time also more destructive and more vulnerable. Seen in this light, the control over fire appears to be a double-edged sword, eliciting the same ambivalence that is typical of the present human self-image in general.

Nowadays fire is continuously present in all human societies. It is used in many different forms, some mainly ceremonial and highly visible, most others primarily technical and largely hidden from public view and consciousness. The moment we consider the part played by combustion processes in transport and production, it becomes clear how thoroughly our lives are enmeshed in structures which are kept going by fire and fuel. We live in highly fuel-intensive economies, and most fires burning today are generated by those economies. Fire has become overwhelmingly anthropogenic, or manmade. Where there is smoke, there is fire; where there is fire, there are people.

We may safely assume that every single step in the long-term process of increasing use of, and control over, fire has been the result of planned human action—of the deliberate and consciously steered efforts of individuals who knew what they were doing. It is more difficult to imagine that the increases in dependency were also deliberately planned. And it is extremely unlikely that our early ancestors in the foraging era ever drew up a comprehensive plan covering hundreds of millennia and leading all the way to our present plethora of gas furnaces and internal combustion engines; the very idea is absurd. Clearly the succession and interaction of short-term planned activities has produced long-term processes that were neither planned nor foreseen. Here is one more way in which the control over fire can be seen as paradigmatic. It shows something of the stuff of which human history is made.


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  2. Elias, N. (2000). The civilizing process: Sociogenetic and psychogenetic investigations (Rev. ed.). Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell.
  3. Goudsblom, J. (1992). Fire and civilization. London: Allen Lane.
  4. Kingdon, J. (2003). Lowly origin: Where, when, and why our ancestors first stood up. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  5. McNeill, J. R. (2001) Something new under the sun: An environmental history of the world in the twentieth century. New York: Penguin Books Ltd.
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  7. Pyne, S. J. (2001). Fire: A brief history. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
  8. K.Sieferle, R. P. (2001). The subterranean forest: Energy systems and the industrial revolution. Cambridge, U.K.: White Horse Press.
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  10. Wrangham, R. (2009). Catching fire: How cooking made us human. New York: Basic Books.
  11. Yergin, D. (1991). The prize: The epic quest for oil, money and power. New York: Simon and Schuster.

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