= Homo, fire and flint


Homo, fire and flint

The australopithecines had retained relatively long arms and were probably still partial tree-dwellers; like all modern primates (except fully-grown male gorillas, who are too heavy and have little to fear) they are likely to have retired to the trees at night. But around two million years ago, they were replaced by animals with skeletons and bodily proportions much more like our own, except that average brain size was still lower.

The animals we call Homo erectus lived in more open country and expanded from Africa into drier and colder regions in southern Eurasia. They cannot always have depended upon trees as refuges at night. On the ground they would have been at the mercy of nocturnal predators with good night vision and/or much better senses of smell and hearing.

They seem to have been in the habit of sharing a base camp at night. This habit has proved invaluable to modern archaeologists, because they left traces of their occupation behind them, enabling us to associate hominid remains, stone artefacts and fragments of their meals.

Richard Klein makes this interesting comment:

If stone artifacts existed before 2.6 my ago, they may prove difficult to find since, unlike later artifact makers, the earliest ones may have been too mobile to accumulate archeologically visible clusters of debris. The archaeological record would be largely invisible if people had not developed the uniquely human habit of returning to the same site for at least a few days (or nights).

(R G Klein, The Human Career), p228

The new habit of using base camps enables us to conclude that these animals could make stone tools and weapons. Does the use of base camps also mean that they had fire? Once fire was in use, it could be tended all day by a member of the group and food would be cooked for all before bedtime. Can we perhaps assume that the "uniquely human habit" of returning to a base camp at night corresponds to the changeover in eating habits between "grazing" all day and returning to a shared cooked meal round a fire in the evening? If so, the "uniquely human habit" which first appears with Homo and was not characteristic, as far as we know, of the Australopithecines, means that Homo had fire from the beginning.

Did early Homo have fire?

Richard Wrangham's very interesting book Catching Fire explains the importance of fire extremely well. The author believes that fire came into general use at the start of the Homo erectus period. He may well be right.

The effects of the regular use of fire would have been extremely dramatic. Fire illuminated and scared away predators at night and provided warmth in a cold climate. And above all, cooking would have revolutionised eating patterns. Uncooked food demands continuous chewing; it uses up calories to chew and to digest and it may yield fewer calories in the end, because digestion is often only partial, especially of foods like raw meat to which our digestive system is not well adapted.

Chimpanzees spend most of their waking hours gathering food and eating it as they gather; other herbivores in general follow a similar pattern. Chimpanzees occasionally hunt, kill and eat small animals, but they cannot digest the meat very well because they must eat it raw. Australopithecines probably behaved similarly. By contrast, humans typically cook most of their food and eat it in family groups at the end of the day. That way, they gain more calories and are able to eat a much wider range of foods. Apart from throwing and language, the use of fire is probably the most important innovation which distinguishes us from other animals. Cooking is one of the most important things which makes us human.

At some time within the last two million years, Homo started to make use of fire. Once he had acquired the skill, it must have changed his life greatly. Surely this dramatic change would have been reflected in visible technological changes which we would be able to perceive in the kinds of implements he left behind him. We know for certain that fire was in use at the end of the long and gradual period from the first Homo erectus to the Neanderthals - there is no doubt that the Neanderthals had fire. We believe also that some meat was eaten, right from the beginning. Stone technology gradually became more sophisticated but did not change fundamentally - almond-shaped hand axes were still being made by the Neanderthals. If (as his technology and diet suggests) life was much the same at the end as at beginning of this long period, the assumption must be that fire had been in use from the beginning.

Of course it might not always have been possible to light a fire anew every evening, especially in cold and damp conditions, when fire was most needed. The ability to make fire at will, which we take for granted, cannot be assumed even in the more recent prehistoric past. Settled agricultural communities later kept fire going continuously in a communal hearth (often invested with religious significance, as in the Roman temple of Vesta). Perhaps the fires of early Homo were the beginnings of this. For pre-agricultural people also, fire must have been dificult to carry around and often hard to light. So the need to come back to a fire at night strongly encouraged a static life in a fixed territory.

The development of the hominids was gradual and there were few dramatic changes for more than one and a half million years. Brain size gradually increased and at the same time, stone implements gradually improved in quality and sophistication and meat seems to have been an increasingly important part of the diet. At the same time, hominids spread increasingly into colder areas of the world. The process reached a climax quite recently (in the geological time frame) with the Neanderthals, who occupied Europe and adjacent areas during some very cold periods, had brains as large or larger than our own and seem to have been predominantly meat-eaters.

But from the first appearance of Homo erectus up to and including the Neanderthals, who had brains as large as our own and were the only hominids in Europe until less than a hundred thousand years ago, there seems to have been a remarkable technological continuity. Throughout this period, the art of making stone implements was gradually perfected - probably the art of using them improved in the same way - but the main implement produced (which we now call a hand axe) remained the same.

Stone Artifacts

For more than a million years, the commonest stone artifact was the so-called "hand axe:"

A hand axe was a large stone chipped into an almond shape, with a sharp edge not only at the point, but also all round, which seems a pointless and awkward design for a hand-held cutting tool. Although this idea has not yet gained general acceptance, it seems increasingly probable that what we call "hand axes" were actually missiles (see link).

Over the immensely long period during which hand axes were produced - a period of more than a million years, during which the hominid brain almost doubled in size - the art of making and throwing missiles is likely to have been gradually perfected. If a Neanderthal (at the end of the pre-sapiens period of hominid development, with the benefit of training or example based on literally hundreds of thousands of years of practice) could throw a sharpened stone missile reliably to hit a distant target point first - and he probably could - it would have been a very dangerous weapon.

But to actually kill or disable a large animal, a stone point needs to gain momentum and penetration by being hafted on to a wooden shaft. No such hafted spear points or arrow heads appear until some time in the last 100,000 years (see link). Apart from stones and sharpened stone missiles, what other weapons were available? Wooden clubs and sharpened wooden spears are useful defensive weapons but of limited use for hunting.

Animal food appears to have been an increasingly important part of the hominid diet and would have been much more likely if fire was in use for cooking, but consumption of meat does not necessarily provide evidence of hunting large animals. If a shower of missiles could drive a leopard away from an infant, it could also drive it away from an animal which it had just killed. It would have been possible to obtain big game by waiting (perhaps in a tree) at a watering place until a heavy animal was killed by a predator and then driving the predator off the carcase with missiles. Perhaps our hominid predecessors were prey-stealers rather than predators. In this they would not have been unusual: all predators are on the lookout for recent kills by their predator competitors, and a recent victim is not always even initially eaten - and unless light and portable hardly ever completely eaten - by the predator which made the kill. Compared with other prey-stealers, hominids had a unique advantage - they could attack the killer from a distance and perhaps drive it away from its meal without exposing themselves to its teeth and claws.

The gradual development of hominids continued until around 100,000 years ago - later in some parts of the world. Brain size almost doubled; geographical range expanded into cold areas of Europe; stone artifacts were gradually perfected. But there was an astonishing continuity. In particular the dominance of almond-shaped hand axes for almost the whole period of pre-sapiens hominid development - more than a million years, during which time brain size almost doubled - is extraordinary. Later hand axes are much better made, but they are essentially the same tools as those originally invented and presumably were used in the same way. There were other stone implements; but there is no evidence of bone, antlers or ivory being used as materials for deliberate tool-making on standard patterns until around 60,000 years ago.

The Origin of Dogs

Humans and canines are natural competitors. But there were strong incentives also for co-operation, even well before people started organising themselves in communities bigger than families. People can offer canines the benefit of their intelligence and their ability to fight enemies from a distance. Canines can offer people their highly developed senses of smell and hearing. At some stage, the two species learned to hunt together. But the most easily discovered incentive for the two species to co-operate may well have been the value of guard dogs to raise the alarm at night at the approach of predators. Co-operation for this reason could have occurred very easily and naturally and might have developed very early after base camps and fire.

There must have been frequent battles between humans and canines, fighting for the carcase of a large animal, perhaps killed by the humans, perhaps by thecanines, perhaps by a big cat and only partially eaten. Often the canines would be on the losing side and some of them would be killed. They also would be cooked and eaten. A young one, tender food perhaps but surplus to immediate requirements, might be kept alive. It would grow and get fatter for later. But its ears and nose were far more sensitive than ours are. At night, as it grew older and more aware, it would unknowingly make itself useful. It would wake and raise the alarm at the approach of nocturnal predators. If there was no immediate need to eat it, the young canine was worth keeping as a natural watchdog, at least until another puppy came along.

Dogs diverged from the wolf stock around 40,000 years ago - perhaps 30,000 years before the appearance of settled agriculture but about the time when people attained decisive control over their environment. From that point on, there was less daily contact with wolves and interbreeding between dogs and wolves became the occasional exception rather than the rule. But for a very long time before that, during the hundreds of thousands of years when people were still the mercy of nocturnal predators, in a world full of canines, it may well have been the norm for small human communities to depend on tethered and docile canines or puppies to act as guard dogs at night. Guard dogs may well have been part of human life for as long as fire.

Like people, canines show wide variations in character and intelligence. This was a useful characteristic for wild animals that lived in communities, where too many aspiring leaders would have caused chaos. As dogs diverged from wolves, intelligence was useful but leadership potential was not. Most of that has been bred out of dogs, particularly pedigree dogs. With the occasional rogue exception, they are now all natural followers.

The Hominid Environment

During the long period of hominid development, people (if we should call them people) were only one species among many and by no means the most powerful, numerous or important. 60,000 years ago - only three or four thousand human generations - our picture of the past shows us a world which was still dominated by very large animals. In particular, mammoths and other members of the elephant family existed in huge numbers almost everywhere in the world. Elephants feared few predators and had adapted to almost every kind of climate. Their overwhelming influence on the environment - still true of a few small areas of Africa - was probably once the rule almost everywhere.

The elephant has shaped much of the natural African landscape, rendering it more fit for habitation by human beings... As they forage, elephants create and maintain broad paths through impenetrable bamboo and elephant grass belts, and in forested areas, they keep extensive glades in permanent state of early succession, not only breaking down trees but also tearing up acres of saplings for their roots. They excavate and weed out water holes, and “garden” interconnected glades and clearings into tangled vegetation.

(Chapurukha Kusimba)

Elephants make tracks through forest which people and other animals subsequently use; many of our present-day roads may well have originated in this way. They dig wells which are subsequently used by other animals:

The wells that they dig can reach nearly 2m in depth. Most well-digging is initiated by adult males, which locate the best places to dig by finding damp places on the ground surface. ..Wells dug by elephants collapse after the rains begin, yet they are invariably redug within a few feet of where they had been located before..

(Gary Haynes (1991) Mammoths, Mastodonts & Elephants)

Elephants are highly intelligent animals and until the appearance of the bipedal hominids, the only mammals which could manipulate objects without needing to to use limbs evolved mainly for walking, running or climbing. The elephant trunk is immensely strong yet (it has been reported) able to pick individual blades of grass. Elephants appear to have sophisticated means of communication over distances using low-frequency notes which we cannot hear.

The elephants of the past - which we call mammoths - were closely related to modern elephants (though some of them were considerably bigger) and are unlikely to have behaved very differently from them:

Great differences in the social behaviours of the extinct species seem unlikely; the two surviving taxa (African and Indian elephants) diverged from a common ancestry millions of years ago and yet today they display behaviors that are strikingly similar. Their behaviors might therefore be similar to to those of directly ancestral or closely related extinct forms.


It is easy and probably correct to imagine woolly mammoths providing drinking water for themselves (and of course others) by breaking holes in the ice on frozen Siberian rivers and lakes.

Besides mammoths, the hominid environment included many other huge and powerful animals, now extinct. They had tough hides. How effective would stone missiles, clubs and wooden spears have been against a herd of mammoths, some of them twice the size of an African elephant? The hominids who lived before the coming of modern man (up to only at most 5000 generations ago in Europe) probably always lived in fear of large animals and had little control over the environment in which they lived. Agriculture was inconceivable because crops would have been trampled and eaten. Permanent dwellings (unless in caves or other inaccessible locations) would always have been liable to be overrun.

To sum up: over a period of several million years which ended only about a hundred thousand years ago (later in Europe and Asia), first the australopithecines and then the hominids survived and created a favourable ecological niche for themselves, probably above all because they could defend themselves and their young by the use of natural and artificial weapons - particularly missiles - which enabled them to keep their enemies at a safe distance. When they learned to cook their food, the same skills enabled them to kill small animals and to steal the flesh of larger animals by driving predators away from their kills. Like chimpanzees, they could make tools and weapons out of perishable materials; unlike chimpanzees, they also learned to shape stones and this greatly extended their armoury and toolkit. They were highly intelligent and they were possibly the only primates to successfully colonise colder climates. At some stage they learned to use fire. But their environment was dominated by animals much larger and more powerful than themselves; they lived in the shadow of the megafauna.

What kind of creatures were they? Were they people like ourselves? Can we imagine humans so conservative that their technology remained almost unchanged for a million years? Yet in contrast to the australopithecines, the later varieties now classified as Homo had skeletons and even (in later animals) brain capacity little different from our own. Nevertheless we must avoid anthropomorphism: skeletal resemblance is not enough. In particular, we should not assume necessarily that our hominid predecessors had our typically human powers of speech. There are some good reasons for suggesting that they had not.

Language and Social Organization (Next section)

The Australopithecines (Previous section)


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