The discovery of fire is considered to be one of the key moments in our history as a species. However, it was the ability to control fire that really made a difference. It is incredibly hard to identify exactly when humanity first started using fires deliberately, but there is evidence.
It is thought that fire was being controlled around the world 125,000 years ago and in some places the practice is seen from around 400,000 years ago. Uranium dating indicates that fire was being used at a site in Suffolk 415,000 years ago and there are other sites where it is believed fire was being controlled hundreds of years earlier.
Controlled fire didn’t just bring warmth. It also provided protection and a means of cooking, which then expanded our diet. It also meant that we could remain active later into the night. Many animals are scared of fire and insects are also less likely. This would be of great benefit hundreds of years ago when such things were major causes of death and so fire doubtless helped our species survive and expand.
It will also have helped us live in colder climates. A few degrees in temperature could be the difference between survival and death, meaning our ancestors could have moved to colder climes, occupying more of the earth’s surface. Without fire, many latitudes would be uninhabitable.
It has been argued that cooking plants may have triggered brain expansion because complex carbohydrates could be more easily digested, meaning we could take in more calories. However, this theory is disputed. Many believe that brains had already enlarged before we harnessed fire as people moved to a meat and berry diet.
Nevertheless, fire certainly changed our diet. Different parts of plants could now be eaten, meaning not just a more varied diet, but more food overall. Homo erectus evolved over time to have smaller teeth in order to eat softer, cooked foods. Cooking meat also partially digests it, meaning energy can be put towards digesting collagen and other hard to digest elements. One calculation estimates that humans would have to eat for over nine hours a day to fuel their brains if they only ate raw, unprocessed food, although again, this is disputed.
Nowadays, we take fire for granted. We rarely cook on open flames and the heating systems in our homes keep the source of the heat out of sight. Perhaps only when we have a real fire in our living rooms do we get in touch with our roots and maybe this explains their popularity.
Gemma Pathan loves modern fireplaces and writes on behalf of castfireplaces.co.uk