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Study: Fire use got started when Africa was fire-prone

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fire started to clear land/James F. O’Connell

From ScienceDaily:

Current prevailing hypotheses of how human ancestors became fire-dependent depict fire as an accident — a byproduct of another event rather than a standalone occurrence. One hypothesis, for example, explains fire as a result of rock pounding that created a spark and spread to a nearby bush.

“The problem we’re trying to confront is that other hypotheses are unsatisfying. Fire use is so crucial to our biology, it seems unlikely that it wasn’t taken advantage of by our ancestors,” said Kristen Hawkes, distinguished professor of anthropology at the U and the paper’s senior author.

“Everything is modified by fire; just take a look around at the books and furniture in this room. We’re surrounded by fire’s byproducts,” added Christopher Parker, anthropology postdoctoral research associate at the U and the paper’s first author.

We’ve noticed that too. And it’s unlikely that any fire-dependent culture would develop as a result of accidentally encountering fire on occasion. There had to b a means of producing it regularly and efficiently.

The team’s thesis is that two to three million years ago, Africa was prone to fires, which create foraging opportunities.

By burning off cover and exposing previously obscured holes and animal tracks, fire reduces search time; it also clears the land for faster growing, fire-adapted foliage. Foods altered by burning take less effort to chew and nutrients in seeds and tubers can be more readily digested. Those changes reduce handling efforts and increase the value of those foods.

“Most people think that the logical reaction would be to run away from fire, but fire provided our ancestors with a feeding opportunity. Evidence shows that other animals take advantage of fire for foraging, so it seems very likely that our ancestors did as well,” said Hawkes.

The proposed scenario not only explains how hominins came to manipulate fire for its foraging advantages, but also provides a solution to the baffling mismatch between the fossil and archaeological records. Anatomical changes associated with dependence on cooked food such as reduced tooth size and structures related to chewing appear long before there is clear archaeological evidence of cooking hearths.

Parker and Hawkes’ scenario resolves the mismatch by suggesting that the earliest forms of fire use by the genus Homo would not have left traces in the form of traditional fire hearths.More. Paper. Open access

Interesting thesis. We didn’t know there was a baffling mismatch.

Now, here’s a hitch: Although the authors only hint at the fact, many traditional groups of people have started fires for precisely the purpose they mention—and some still do. Such groups might have been one reason why ancient Africa was fire-prone.

If there were only a few people and a great deal of land, the need for hearths might not have been apparent until later.

See also: Neanderthals started fires with Mn compound?

This month, Neanderthals died out because they couldn’t harness fire

Fireplace found from 300 kya

and Human origins: The war of trivial explanations

File under: Fat lot we know.

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