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Burning PlanetThe Story of Fire Through Time$
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Andrew C. Scott

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780198734840

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198734840.001.0001

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(p.147) 7 Prometheus
Burning Planet

Andrew C. Scott

Oxford University Press

It is sometimes said that humans were born of fire. While a wide range of animal species interact with fire, we appear to be the only species to have learned to tame it, and more importantly to make it. There is evidence that early humans were aware of fire and may have exploited naturally occurring fire, but only later did they control and manage it. Human interaction with fire must have proceeded through various levels, the first of which can be described as the opportunistic phase. In this phase, natural fire may have been exploited to help in hunting, for example. When, how, and why did this happen? It is widely agreed that our story begins in Africa. It is here that we see the evolution of hominins, a group of related genera that include the Australopithecines and later the genus Homo. How common would fire have been in the environments in which they lived? We already know from the study of fossil plants, as well as isotope data, that there were important changes in both the vegetation and climate over the past 10 million years. It is also during this time interval that hominins emerged from apes. Through the Oligocene and Miocene (30–8 million years ago), Africa was largely covered by tropical rainforest, where fire was present but infrequent, started both by lightning strikes and volcanic activity. As the climate began to dry and C4 grasses spread at the end of the Miocene Epoch, around 8 million years ago, habitats became more open. Fire became more frequent, and from an animal perspective would have become more visible, not just from flames but also smoke. Frequent fire in the landscape would have had many consequences for the early hominins, not just because game was more easily killed, but burned animals (naturally cooked meat) would have made a useful addition to the diet, and the new flush of growth following fire would also have attracted large herds of herbivores. Fire may have been conserved through adding fuel, including dung, which is slow burning.

Keywords:   Australia, Belgium, DNA, Eurasia, Israel, Middle East, Neanderthals, Oligocene, Pleistocene

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