There is a lot of coverage in the media today of the recent report that seems to make clear beyond all doubt that our pre-human ancestors were using fire around a million years ago in Africa. This is an interesting enough thing to discover in itself, but it has added significance because there is a theory that it was the discovery of fire that created humans as they are today.
The idea goes that it was the ability to cook our food that enabled us to make our diet energy rich enough to be able to evolve brains and culture.
So fire has not just warmed us, protected us and given us mealtimes. It also created us as the species we are. This is all fascinating stuff and quite illuminating. But it struck me that the discovery of fire by intelligent creatures had another just as fundamental and significant.
Once we started burning fuel we started the process of changing the face of the planet. Once trees became a source of energy as well as shelter it was only a matter of time before we started to clear them. And this produced a new form of competition between human societies. It wasn’t just a question of competing over who could beat another tribe in open conflict. The efficiency with which you could harness energy to use became a key factor in how long your society would thrive compared to nearby ones.
We don’t often think of it in those terms, but the rise of the West was fundamentally the result of the ability of Europeans to exploit sources of power in greater quantity than humans elsewhere on the planet knew how to. That knowledge has now spread changing the relationships between people in ways we are still working out. And this process has continued and continues. The process of deforestation started a million years ago is still going on and even today forests are still being cleared.
And in another twist our desire for ever more power has changed not just the landscape but the very atmosphere. The cave dwellers who started that fire a million years ago can have had no idea of the consequences their desire for warmth would have. It is quite likely that we are doing the same. The coal and oil we burn today are releasing tonnes of carbon dioxide. Nobody really knows what this is going to do.
Fire has created us, created history and changed our world beyond recognition and beyond going back.