The history of the wood fire

As the nights draw in, there’s nothing cosier than a crackling log fire or warming woodburner. Woodsman Vincent Thurkettle provides a guide to choosing wood for the perfect blaze

 

Fire

It is said that fire was the television of the ancients. But who were the first people to sit watching their evening fires? World mythology has many legends of how we came to have fire; interestingly, it came from the sky in most of these stories. But the truth is far more wonderful. The dog may well be man’s best friend, but our oldest friend is fire.

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Evidence is growing that we had fire long before we were actually human. Many anthropologists now believe that it was almost two million years ago that our early hominid ancestors first learned to tame wild fire, to domesticate it and reap the rewards of light, warmth, protection and cooked food. Curiously, it is the last of these benefits that provides the best evidence.

While early hearth sites have been studied by archaeologists, centuries of wind and rain have caused most to melt back into the environment and become indistinguishable from the burnt remains of natural fires. The further we go back, the harder it is to say whether a slight hollow with scorched earth and charcoal fragments is a hearth or simply the remains of a burnt-out tree stump.

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The physical evidence for very early, deliberate fire sites is sparse and often tenuous and many scientists now believe that the best evidence for the earliest use of fire is in fact not the hearth sites at all – rather, it’s us, the human mind and body.

We have small mouths and teeth and a short digestive tract when compared to the other primates. It seems that our bodies may have physically adapted to consume cooked food. Cooking meat and plants breaks down starch and proteins, making it easier to absorb the food energy. This pre-digestion of our raw food through cooking allows the day’s energy requirement to be absorbed much more quickly.

It’s been calculated that a human would need to eat for 9.3 hours a day if all of the day’s food was eaten raw and unprocessed. Researchers have observed that non-human primates spend an average of 48% of their day eating, compared to only 4.7% for humans. These differences in our body’s digestive system are strong evidence of an unimaginably long relationship with cooked food and the curious phenomenon of fire.

But it is not just a physical adaptation: we are mentally different, too. Even today, people tend to sit around a campfire in a circle – which is fun, but not important. But just imagine the effect on our nascent social development to sit and face each other for hours each evening. The mastery of fire had lengthened our day; sunset no longer heralded a time of predators and fear, darkness no longer held dominion – and our species blossomed.

Fire was staggeringly important to the development of modern humans and even today has an essential role in our lives – we still delight in the joy, warmth and self-sufficiency that a full woodshed promises as the nights draw in and winter arrives. This timeless special relationship is why we love to watch dancing flames, or pick up the aromatic tang of wood smoke in the evening air – fire may well have been the TV of our distant ancestors, but it is still so much more than just a quaint entertainment.

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Vincent Thurkettle is a woodsman who grows Christmas trees and also prospects for gold. He is author of The Wood Fire Handbook (Mitchell Beazley, 2012)

Photo credit: Geoff Robinson