A fire glows in the dark
night, juts its gemlike
sparkle to offer shelter
from the turning year’s
cold clockwork. Spring lolls
like it always does, but when
we huddle here, we can be patient
as we need. For we have time
now, warmly swaddled, to talk.
— Matthew Kosinski
What makes us human? What distinguishes our species from all the rest with whom we share this planet? It’s a big question, one that has provoked a wide range of responses throughout history. The Greek philosopher Aristotle contended human beings were defined by rationality — that we alone use reason and pursue knowledge to its own ends.1 Much later, in the early 20th century, the philosopher Ernst Cassirer said it was our ability to use symbols that makes us human — because, he argued, things like culture and even reason cannot exist without symbolism. 2
Photo by Chuttersnap; Source: Unsplash
Other answers have been posited, too: Our complex tools and technologies. Art. Our cooperative tendencies. Our advanced ability to empathize and understand what others are thinking and feeling.3
But the defining characteristic of human beings might be simpler and more concrete than all that. It might be our ability to make and use fire.4
The Cooking Animal
While fires have been part of Earth’s ecosystem since essentially the planet’s birth, they became a regular phenomenon with the spread of grass and grasslands around 7 million years ago. It was in these grasslands — the African savanna, to be more specific — that early humans first interacted with fire some 1.5 million years ago. Our ancestors quickly realized that, while fire was certainly frightening, it had its upshots. It was a valuable source of warmth and light, and it kept animals and insects away. While they didn’t yet understand how to make fire, our curious forebears eventually figured out they could keep naturally occuring fires alive by feeding them fuel.5
Photo by Gary Sandoz; Source: Unsplash
The jury is still out on when, exactly, we learned to create fire on command. However, some archeologists and anthropologists believe it happened fairly early in our evolutionary history. As evidence, they point to things like our penchant for staying up after dark despite our poor night vision. That, they say, suggests we had reliable access to artificial light sources hundreds of thousands of years ago.6
Other evidence comes from our biology. Homo erectus developed smaller mouths, teeth, and digestive systems than its ancestors, implying their digestive systems were more efficient at extracting nutrients from the things they ate. They didn’t need heavy duty physiological equipment to break down food. What would make that possible? Cooking. And what makes cooking possible? Fire.7
“To develop and maintain such mighty brains, we need an efficient way of supplying all that energy.”
We’ve previously covered the connection between cooking and human evolution, but the short version is this: The human brain is a powerful organ, which means it needs a lot of energy to function. To develop and maintain such mighty brains, we need an efficient way of supplying all that energy. Raw food, it turns out, isn’t all that economical for our brains’ energy budgets, as we’d spend a lot of energy on simply digesting that food. The act of cooking outsources that digestive work, which means we can absorb more nutrition from our food and spend less energy on breaking it down. In turn, we can send all that extra energy to our brains so they can keep whirring away throughout the day.8
Photo by Alexey Ruban; Source: Unsplash
Cooking is one of the few truly universal human practices. It is part of the culture of every documented group of people alive today, including uncontacted peoples.9 Could our ancestors’ discovery of fire underpin our ubiquitous, rich, and varied food cultures?
Let’s Sit by the Fire
One thing is clear: Fire fuels our humanity on a very practical level — but it also fuels us spiritually and culturally. It underlies and makes possible some of those quirks and capacities that many of us see as distinctly human.
For example, the discovery of fire helped us become the social creatures we are. Fire gave us a place to gather together, where we could share meals, talk, laugh, and seek refuge from the elements. With a fire blazing, we could stay warm — literally and figuratively — in even the harshest of environments. Writing for Smithsonian Magazine, Jerry Adler asserts, “By bringing people together at one place and time to eat, fire laid the groundwork for pair bonding and, indeed, for human society.”10
Our social links were forged in these early flames — a fact reflected in the languages of many cultures. For example, in the Nyungar language of the Noongar people of present-day Australia, the word “karl” means both “fire” and “family.” Similarly, the word “hearth” is often used as a metonym for “home” in English.11
Photo by Pavan Trikutam; Source: Unsplash
Fire also fueled our intellectual growth — again, on a more than material level. Our great ape relatives spend 4-7 hours a day chewing, which the invention of cooking thankfully renders unnecessary for us. Fire also provided our ancestors with warmth and light, so they didn’t need to seek those things out. And it kept people safe by keeping predators away. With so many of their basic needs taken care of, early humans had time to sit and think and dream.12 They had time to talk and to tell one another stories.
More than just a fun way to pass the time, the development of our storytelling impulse may have been a prime engine of our cultural evolution. As the historian Yuval Noah Harari argues in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, mythmaking helped us grow from small bands of hunter-gatherers to complex, large-scale societies. Harari writes, “Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.”13
“The more biological work we outsource through tools and objects, the more time we have to dedicate to pursuits like friendship, science, art, and all the dozens of other activities in which we find joy and fulfillment.”
People also spent their newfound time developing tools — and fire even helped them craft those very tools.14 This creation of a material culture was also foundational to human society as we know it. To quote literary theorist Elaine Scarry, physical objects are “projections of the human body,” extensions of our sentience into the physical world. In her book, The Body in Pain, Scarry uses the example of a chair. A chair, like cooking, is a way of outsourcing some of our biological work — in this case, the work of maintaining a comfortable posture through the effort of our musculoskeletal systems alone.15 The more of this biological work we outsource through tools and objects, the more time we have to dedicate to pursuits like friendship, science, art, and all the dozens of other activities in which we find joy and fulfillment.
And speaking of art: Early cave paintings were often drawn with overlapping figures. Some researchers believe this, too, may have been influenced by fire. In the flickering of a torch, these images appear to move, a prehistoric version of cinema.16 So fire had a hand in the creation of our symbolic culture, which — tracking all the way back to the beginning of this story — some believe defines our very humanity.
This painting, in Spain’s Atxurra Cave, is thought to have been designed so that the bison would appear to move in the flickering light of a fire. Source: Atlas Obscura
From the Ashes
Yet, for all the ways fire seems to make us “special,” it also ties us more closely to the world we inhabit. That’s because we humans aren’t the only species who’ve relied on fire to make us who we are.
Wildland fires — healthy, naturally occurring fires — play a key role in maintaining Earth’s ecosystems, especially its grasslands. Periodic burning in verdant environments clears out dead organic material that has accumulated over time, allowing new life to grow. Nutrients from the burned matter return to the soil, increasing its fertility and allowing it to support an even lusher expanse of plant life.17
Some plants, called “pyrophiles,” even require fire to reproduce.16 The seeds of the lodgepole pine and the Eucalyptus tree, for example, are encased in hard shells that only open when a fire has melted their resin seals. It’s an ingenuous adaptation on the plant’s part: A fire, after all, leaves behind incredibly rich soil — a perfect bed for a new tree.19
The seeds of the Eucalyptus tree are only released by fire; Source: NBC
“We’ve learned [fire suppression] only makes the intensity of fires much worse: Dead matter builds up, and when a fire inevitably occurs, it often has tragic consequences.”
Many Indigenous peoples have long used fire’s renewing power to their benefit. The phrase “cultural burning” refers to the practice of intentionally lighting small, controlled fires to promote the health of local plants and animals. In the words of Frank Kanawha Lake, an ecologist and member of the Karuk Tribe of California, “[Cultural burning] links back to the tribal philosophy of fire as medicine. When you prescribe it, you’re getting the right dose to maintain the abundance of productivity of all ecosystem services to support the ecology in your culture.”20
The ecological management strategy of fire suppression, in which wildland fires are avoided at all costs, was introduced to America by Europeans. Over time, we’ve learned it only makes the intensity of fires much worse: Dead matter builds up, and when a fire inevitably occurs, it often has tragic consequences.21
In recent years, Western governmental organizations, including the U.S. National Parks Service, have moved away from suppression and begun partnering with Indigenous peoples to adopt cultural burning as a healthier land management technique.22
And humans aren’t even the only animals that make use of fire as a tool. Indigenous peoples in Australia have long told stories of “firehawks,” birds that pick up smoldering sticks and use them to start fires as a means of driving their prey out into the open. While Western naturalists have traditionally dimissed these tales as myth, a growing body of evidence suggests that black kites, whistling kites, and brown falcons truly do engage in this behavior.23
A prescribed fire at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield; Source: NPS.gov
Perhaps humanity’s relationship with fire isn’t wholly unique — but fire has undoubtedly shaped our world and our ways of life. We could say that fire has acted as a provider and a teacher for us. It gave our ancestors the tools, time, and space they needed to develop into the Homo sapiens we are today, both physiologically and culturally. Though some may argue this anthropomorphizes a force of nature, separating our shared history is impossible. Fire and humans were both born from the laws that govern the universe, and we remain inextricably linked.
During the Gaelic harvest festival of Samhain, families would let their hearth fires — so painstakingly attended to every other day of the year — burn out. Then, everyone would gather around the Druid priests, who lit a communal fire, from which each family would take a spark to light a new fire back home.24 In this way, the entire community drew warmth and light from the same shared source all winter long, even while they sat in their individual homes.
“An Arch Druid in His Judicial Habit” from The Costume of the Original Inhabitants of the British Islands by S.R. Meyrick and C.H. Smith.; Source: Wikipedia
Despite no need for a communal hearth ritual today, there’s a reason we are still drawn to the warmth of a flickering flame. Fire reminds us instinctively of our connection to the natural world, our shared past, and to one another. Being around a fire fosters conversations that are more open and honest.25 In community, warmth, and safety, we’re reminded of shared truths about our own inner fires — our truest needs and passions: They are of the same essence as the flames of those around us, and a community is a place where the act of tending to our fires is a shared labor of love and celebration.
How will you tend to your fire this and every month? And how will you share its glow with the world? It’s worth taking some time to think about it — and remember that flames of all kinds, from campfires to candles, are warmer when they are cared for and shared with friends.
— The Keap Team
P.S. If the seasons and this story inspired you to spend some time around the fire in the coming months, check out our February drinks recipe, Ignis. In this hot toddy variation, smoky Mezcal comes together with bittersweet amaro, woodsy kukicha tea, and walnut orgeat, garnished with lime and fresh nutmeg. Just the thing to keep you company on these long, chilly nights.