1.6 The fire

Already as normal australopiths our ANBOs knew the attractive qualities of fire,  and also australopiths were not the only animals who were lured by the far clouds of a natural fire. Vultures are always the first ones. Immediately followed by big cats and hyenas. Even antelopes are enticed,  because of the salty ashes.

The ANBO-females knew that some tubers and other plants, normally not edible, were edible after the work of the fire.
Why about women again? Women have to feed their children. In everything they do, they are motivated by the need for more and better food for their children.
Further, it were the women who not only started with the enrichment of the australopith communication with names for things but who were also generation after generation working on expanding the ANBOs’ vocabulary. And again names for things does something to an animal. Five things. Including power over things. Power over fire. Fire that nutritious tubers that are roasted without being inedible are edible.
It had to be in a wonan’s mind that rose the idea to use the fire.
It was an old and experienced woman, a grandmother who had the courage to take a glowing branch of an smoldering natural fire.
Trembling with fear, she took it to a safe place, fed it with dry grass and wood and breathed in new life: fire. The other ANBOs observed from a distance, screaming in fear. at what the grandma was doing.
She held a tuber on her digging stick in the flames.
When she thought the tuber was done, she tasted it.
Then she got up with difficulty and went with the tuber to her granddaughter. Granddaughter would remember this moment ever in her life.

Too nice, this ‘just-so-story’? Then consider this: gorillas have been observed sitting near a smoldering fire in nights when the temperature on the savannah approached the freezing point. But no ape is known to ‘feed’ the extinguishing fire with combustible material. But our ANBOs did. Because they already had a name for fire! They got a feeling of power over it and gradually lost their instinctive fear of the fire.
After this, of course it took many generations before they had developed the technique to carry the fire from one campsite to the other, as live charcoal in a bovine’s horn or in some similar way.[1]  But time plays no role for cultural evolution.

How dare we assume that this taming of fire occurred some 4 million years ago?
Most paleos don’t go farther back than the 790,000 years old Gesher Benot Ya’aqov site in Israel, where charred wood and seeds were recovered[2]. Some brave paleos accept the evidence from Swartkrans and Chesowanja dating 1.5 million years ago.

San women stop en route to roast an excavated tuber. What can be found after two years of such a road-fire? After ten years? After a hundred years?

There are two kinds of clear evidence that are indicate an earlier use.
One: as experimentally proven by Richard Wrangham[3], a raw (not cooked, not grilled, not roasted) chimpanzee diet would be simply inadequate to sustain larger-brained beings of human size. So there is no other way our ancestor-australopiths could have evolved into larger beings, than through some kind of radically improved food supply.

The paleos of the Wonderwerk-cave in South Africa have found traces of fire use and are convinced that they will also see these traces in the lower layers of 180,000 ya.

So! Still 2 million years to go!

But it remains traces in caves. We continue to claim that the ANBOs did not live in caves but foraged in open areas. The traces of the on-the-way fires are untraceable after ten years already. Certainly not if the researchers are not looking for it. So we assume that controlled fire existed far more earlier than these 2 million years ago.

The first ‘professional’ stone tools found at Lomekwi are 3.3 mya and the Dikika cut marks even 3,4 mya. They attest to a new niche for protein: meat. And with it a new behavior, unknown in other species. Behavior that can only ascribed to disposing of names for things.

Not for the start of meat consumption, however. Already the common ancestor was a part-time meat eater: both bonobos and chimpanzees are. For the ANBOs we have to look back to the hides that could be found all over the Miocene savannah. In the following millions of years the hooligans of the savannah, ever more audacious with their stones, learned to chase away feeding predators from their prey. That was the moment when the males began to contribute to the diet: carrion became an increasingly important part of nutrition.

The best sources of carrion, the pachyderms (elephants, rhinos, hippos) had skins that were too thick for lions and hyenas and vultures to penetrate. Those predators had to wait until, after two or three days, the skin cracked open by decomposition gasses. But the ANBO’s with their knife-sharp stone tools could start processing the dead animal immediately! And again: women slaughtered, and men kept hungry hyenas and vultures at bay with their stones.

The Dikika stone tools of 3.4 mya may have had their first precursors 4 mya, and this date is close to the mentioned 4.5 mya, the date from the split of Max Planck Institut Leipzig!

For millions of years, the standard way to make a ‘knife’ or scraper had been to smash a stone against another stone or rock, and then pick out the best ‘knife’.
In the new circumstances, this was no longer sufficient.
I think knapping the ‘knife’ from a core stone with a hammer stone was too risky for long, bent ape fingers (they still needed those ape fingers for climbing quickly into trees for sleeping and safety). But in order to improve the stone ‘knives’ they needed some knapping technique; and in order to develop a knapping technique they would need shorter, “handier” fingers.

Evolution had to find a balance between the need for long, bent fingers for climbing and making nests in trees on one side, and the need for shorter, handier fingers for knapping better knives on the other. It was the use of the fire that altered this balance.
Since the fire provided protection from predators, this made it possible to stay on the ground instead of climbing in a treetop to build nests. Because our ANBOs no longer needed to climb trees at night, they no longer needed long “ape” fingers. This allowed the development of shorter, handier fingers suitable for better knife production.

2,5 mya, the earth climate became even more cool and dry: the onset of the Ice Ages. Woodland savannah began to turn into desert savannah. The carrion competition grew more fierce. This is the time that the other australopith apes died out and that our ANBOs, thanks to their names for things, their ability to communicate with each other and the resulting wisdom of the crowd gained power over their circumstances.

  1. If you don’t believe that such an early ‘taming’ of fire can be postulated, ask Ralph Rowlett of the University of Missouri-Columbia in Missouri.
  2. In a recent PNAS article (March 2011) the paleos Roebroeks and Villa suggest that the real control of fire is not older than 400.000 years; we have to take in consideration that their research only concerns European archaeological sites, and that they emphasize that earlier use of fire was possible in an opportunistic way: using smoldering wood from a natural fire, keeping it smoldering in a gourd or something
  3. Cooking Up Bigger Brains (2008); Wrangham himself did a research experiment by trying to live on a chimpanzee diet of fruit and raw meat: he found it not feasible for humans!

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Used abbreviations

GHs: gatherers/hunters (the phase from 2 million years ago to 10.000 years ago)

AGRs: agriculturers (the phase from 10.000 years ago till now)

NT(s)Neanderthal people

MSA(s): Middle Stone Age people (African NTs)

AMH(s): Anatomical Modern Humans (H sapiens people), like we are

(m)ya: (million) years ago

ANBOs: Ancestor Bonobos (ape-men), our earliest human ancestors

Paleos: all scientists that are important for our story.