A couple of weeks ago, I had a discussion with a dear friend on what is the most important invention in the human history. She rebuffed my suggestion that beginning of scientific thinking is the most important invention, as a dumb idea. Instead she said that fire was the most important invention of humanity. I respect her intelligence too much to doubt her conclusion. So lets have a closer look at “domestication” of fire.
We are nowadays too used to easy accessibility of fire to understand its importance. Only when we are unabelt to get fire in a hostile environment do we miss it. Look at the scene from Tom Hanks’ Cast Away to get an idea.
Our ancestors realized the change that the domestication of fire brought. Ancient Greeks immortalized it in the form of Prometheus, a Titan, who steals the fire from the Gods and gives its blessing to the humanity. Prometheus is also credited with creating man from clay, hence his affinity to the welfare of mankind is not a wonder. Prometheus’ defiance of authority to do what he believed is right without any concern for the consequences is a symbol of enlightenment and fight against despotism.
Archaeological sites at Bnot Ya’akov (Crossing of Jacob’s daughters) bridge in Israel presents earliest evidence of control of fire by H. erectus of H. ergaster. The site is dated to 790,000 BP to 690,000 BP. The control of fire is considered as the dividing line between lower Paleolithic and middle Paleolithic cultures.
Fire allowed early humans to cook their food with various benefits not counting the much better tasting steak. It helped in better digestion of food as complex carbohydrates are broken into simpler ones. It also allowed the breaking of poisonous toxins in nuts into non toxic simpler forms thus making them edible. Use of cooked food may have resulted in a shorter intestinal tract and thus allowing more energy for the development of brain. Fire also protected the humans from predators. Human activities was no longer restricted to only day time.
Fire may have contributed immensely to increased social interaction with the entire tribe coming together in the evening around the fire. I could just picture early humans sitting around the fire with a few of them cooking food, some making stone tools, others grooming (removing fleas) each other and still others lying a little apart from everyone looking intently at the heavens and forming the earliest mythologies and religion.