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Fire in the roots of humans

January 19th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

One key difference between animals and humans is the use of fire; in fact, during the evolution, fire made us humans. For instance, cooking implied higher food energy, as well as an increased the diversity of available food (detoxifying effects of heating, etc…). Furthermore, cooking implied a delay in food consumption, which required the development of social abilities for the distribution of tasks within the group (e.g., collection, accumulation, cooking, defense, even stealing). These factors are thought to have prompted the evolution of large brains and bodies, small teeth, modern limb proportions, and other human traits, including many social aspects of human-associated behavior. However, the moment in which humans started to use fire is still debated. It is often believed that the rise of Homo erectus from its more primitive ancestors was fueled by the ability use fire.

Although the use and control of fire is a human trait, a recent study has demonstrated that chimpanzees have the ability to understand wildfires and predict their behavior (Pruetz & LaDuke 2010). Chimps calmly observed wildfires around them, predict their behaviour and move accordantly without any stress or fear. This suggest that the conceptualization of fire may be a old trait, in the hominids group.

To what extent current humans are losing this trait is another debate, but we may be better off at managing our fire-prone landscapes by learning from chimps!


  • Pausas J.G. & Keeley J.E. 2009. A burning story: The role of fire in the history of life. BioScience 59: 593-601 [doi] [pdf]
  • Pruetz JD & TC LaDuke 2010. Reaction to fire by savanna chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) at Fongoli, Senegal: Conceptualization of  fire behavior and the case for a chimpanzee model. Am J Phy Anthropol (in press) [doi]
  • Wrangham RW, Jones JH, Laden G, Pilbeam D, Conklin-Brittain NL. 1999. The raw and the stolen: Cooking and the ecology of human origins. Current Anthropol 40: 567–590.
  • Control of fire by early humans [Wikipedia]


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