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How did Stone Age Man Make Fire? - Discovery, Importance & Facts

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  • 0:04 Fire in the Stone Age
  • 0:50 Discovery of Fire
  • 1:29 Benefits of Cooked Food
  • 3:00 Uses of Fire
  • 5:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

How did ancient people discover and use fire? In this lesson, we're going to explore that question and see what archaeologists say about the origins and roles of fire in human history.

Fire in the Stone Age

Picture this scene: a group of scraggly cavemen huddle in a cave, seeking shelter from a passing storm. Suddenly, lightning strikes a nearby tree, which catches fire.

Frightened but inspired, these cavemen venture out, bring burning sticks back into their cave and learn to use fire. Then, bam! Civilization, right? Well, the truth is that our history with fire is much more complicated, and still very much a mystery to our paleoanthropologists and our theologists. We do know that early men and women of the Stone Age had fire in their lives, and used it to help shape their world, sometimes literally. It was a technology that truly set the world ablaze (if you'll pardon the pun).

Discovery of Fire

The first question on everyone's mind is this: when did ancient humans discover fire? The most likely answer: they didn't. Our oldest evidence of the controlled use of fire actually dates back way before the evolution of Homo sapiens, likely back to an ancestor known as Homo erectus.

This was the first hominid to really walk upright, with a slightly larger brain than previous apes and a propensity for tools. How Homo erectus used fire, or even if they did, is still very much a topic for debate, but there is evidence of hearths (fire pits) that date from 1.5 - 2 million years old across Africa.

Benefits of Cooked Food

The discovery of fire by the ancestors to our species was a big deal. It let them cook their food, which made the food safer to eat by killing bacteria and also made it easier to digest. Some paleoanthropologists think that this change is actually what allowed early hominids to start growing larger brains and bodies.

Cooked food is easier to digest, which reduced the amount of energy required to process food. Instead, that energy could be used for developing brain mass and using the brain more often.

Have you ever wondered why humans can't eat raw meat like other animals can? It may be because cooking literally shaped the development of our species. Paleoanthropologists call this the cooking theory of human evolution, and it basically states that the controlled use of fire for cooking is a key factor that allowed for the evolution of humans.

Not only did cooking meat make it safer to digest and safer to consume, which is why we didn't develop the enzymes to process raw meat, but this also required new socialization patterns. Rather than eating on the run, ancient hominids had to share space around a fire and likely ate meals together. That may be the origin of our social needs and behaviors.

Regardless, it's clear that fire was part of the ancient world by the time that humans evolved. Ancient humans would have lived in a world where controlled fire already existed, although it does seem that humans learned to use and control it much more efficiently and practically than our relatives, like Neanderthals.

Uses of Fire

So if Stone Age people had fire, then how did they use it? Obviously, they cooked their food, but the use of fire went far beyond that. For one, fire was an important part of other technological development in the Stone Age. Stone tools existed before the advent of controlled fire, but Stone Age humans combined the two technologies. They discovered that heating rocks around a fire brought out impurities, making the rocks easier to chip into stone tools. Fire also let people turn clay into hardened ceramic pots and vases, useful for carrying and storing food, water, or other items. In fact, 24,000-year-old fire pits that seem to have been used to cook clay may be the oldest examples of kilns in human history.

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