I recently spent the Thanksgiving Day weekend at the family cottage far removed from the urban environment where I live. One of the great joys of spending time in the wilderness was that every night, weather permitting, we would build a large bonfire (“vatra” in Ukrainian) using fallen wood and branches scrounged from the surrounding forest. We would spend many a pleasant hour around the crackling fire, enjoying its pleasant, radiant heat and the spectacle of dancing sparks striving to join their starry cousins in the crystal clear black sky. There was something especially reassuring and peaceful about the experience, making for great conversations and camaraderie among all those gathered around those welcoming flames. In doing so, we were following a tradition that likely dates back millions of years.
Scientists cannot precisely date when our human ancestors first learned to tame and use fire, but speculate from available evidence, that this happened somewhere between one and two million years ago. They are pretty sure that one of our earliest hominid ancestors, Australopithecus, had not learned how to use fire, though their successors known as Homo Erectus who appeared somewhere about 1.8 million years ago, did.
Initially, our ancestors made use of natural fires caused primarily by lightning strikes or volcanic activity. Fires proved useful for staying warm and as a way of keeping predators at bay. At some point, early man also discovered that the meat from animals that had fallen victim to these natural fires and been accidentally cooked, tasted better and was more easily digested than raw meat. They would keep fires going perpetually as best they could, knowing that once they went out, they would have to wait until they came across another naturally caused fire. It would be many hundreds of thousands of years before Homo Erectus learned how to make a fire on demand using tinder and sparks caused by striking certain types of stones such as flint together.
Coincident with this mastery of fire, a number of crucial developments in our evolution towards modern man gained rapid momentum. The most significant of these was the large increase in our brain size. Today’s Homo Sapiens has a brain three times larger than those of Australopithecus. There is a rapid and steady growth in brain size from Australopithecus to Homo Erectus to Homo Sapiens, and many scientists attribute this directly to the mastery of fire.
The key link between the use of fire and the development of mankind’s superior intelligence caused by a quantum jump in brain size, was the development of cooking. Prior to that, our ancestors’ dietary intake consisted almost totally of raw food – roots, seeds, fruits, vegetables and occasionally raw meat. Eating and digesting raw food takes a lot of time, effort and a relatively large expenditure of energy from a caloric point of view. This leaves little caloric surplus for other endeavours, such as brain activity. The brain requires and burns more calories than any other of the body’s organs. Eating cooked food, whether it is meat or anything else, is far more efficient from a digestive point of view, requiring only a quarter to a third of the time and energy of eating raw food. In addition, our digestive system can extract almost 100% of the usable nutrients in cooked food as compared to at most 30% – 40% for raw foods. As our hominid ancestors began to eat more and more cooked food, it created a surplus of available caloric energy which was redirected to the brain, which over the courses of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution grew increasingly larger. As the brain increased its capacity, our intellectual capabilities increased correspondingly, enabling us to eventually master the world around us and become the dominant species on this planet. In this sense we can say that modern man and all the wonders of our civilization were born of fire.
Though few people may be aware of this important connection between our intelligence and the domestication of fire, we all have an instinctive fascination for fires. “Sacred” fires have played an important role in the development of many religions. There are numerous traditions and ceremonies dating back to pagan times and prehistory, that revolve around building bonfires and holding intricate rituals around them. In Ukrainian lore, there is the well-known feast of Ivana Kupala that is centred around building a huge bonfire. In pre-Christian Ukraine, one of the major deities worshipped by our pagan ancestors was Svaroh, the god of fire. Every four years, the Olympics games are opened by the lighting of a ceremonial flame transported from Mount Olympus in Greece.
Fire has played a key role in the history of mankind, and even though modern technology has supplanted the use of open fires for practical purposes, we are still drawn to making and enjoying fires, be it in the fireplaces in our homes, campfires in the wilderness or even the ubiquitous lighting of candles on our dinner tables on special occasions. We were born of fire and subconsciously continue to pay it homage.