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When and how did our ancestors first start using fire? How was it used in hunting for and preparing food? While we cannot pin the date when humans started cooking their food, we can say something about the impact it has had on our evolution. Charles Darwin regarded the ‘discovery’ of fire to be as important as language in human evolution.
Animals fleeing fires set off by lightning striking dry bush or grasslands would have been easy prey for early humans. Perhaps early hunters got their first taste of cooked meat found in the smouldering embers of a bush fire. If it wasn’t too burnt, think how much more delicious the meat coated in melting fat and crisp crackling would seem after their usual fare that took ages to chew and digest. Not only would they have found cooked meat tastier but that it lasted longer. They probably left meat hanging in their smoke-filled caves or shelters and learnt that this dehydrated and preserved it. Perfect to carry for a snack on a hunting expedition.

Foraging for fire, learning which fuels were best for keeping it live and experimenting with different cooking techniques will have taught our ancestors so much. Fire must have seemed magical or divine – early civilizations certainly regarded it as such. Cultures throughout the world have legends explaining how we learned to make fire. The Ancient Greeks believed Prometheus stole fire from the gods for humanity; he was severely punished for his audacity. The Black God of the Navaho, who created the sun and invented the fire drill, gave it to First Man and First Woman. Gods of fire were worshipped in every continent - Agni in India, Ra in Egypt or Pele in Hawaii, and many gods received their offerings through the medium of fire.

Hunting weapons were fashioned using fire: to harden the points of wooden spears, or to melt sticky substances to attach spear or axe heads to their shafts, from the stone age. The first humans probably used fire to hunt and secure their prey, using methods that continued into historic times. In Australia, Martu hunter-gatherers lit fires to reveal the hiding places of monitor lizards called goanna, or force kangaroos out into the open. Native American desert tribes also removed ground cover with fire when hunting lizards. Those in wetter areas dazzled alligators with burning torches so that they were unaware of the spears aimed at them from canoes.

Apaches created smoky areas to attract deer, which were being tormented by insects, where hunters could pick them off with ease. Other tribes used fire to herd deer onto peninsulas where they could be hunted from canoes. It is likely too that Native Americans burned brush and trees to open up areas of grassland that encouraged herds of bison to expand eastwards. As ever human ingenuity enabled our ancestors to move on from fleeing in fear from raging flames to working out how they could control and use it to their advantage.
by Celine Castellino - Archeologist

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