Fire- lets get a little excited about it

One thing that never ceases to amaze us on our bushcraft courses is how everyone, without exception, is drawn to the camp fire and stares almost hypnotically into the flames. It is as if it is part of our makeup as human beings. Well to an extent, that’s true. Humans have a unique association with fire that no other animal has.

Some authorities claim that our direct ancestors, Homo erectus, were using fire as long ago as 1.6 million years, and although the evidence to support that date is controversial, there is certainly evidence dating back almost half that time to 750,000 years ago from a site in Israel, and also a recent find in South Africa of a potential hearth dating back 1 Million years ago. However these dates are still fluid as new theories and research is being tested.

Bushcraft course uk
On each bushcraft course we deliver the fire is the focal point for us all

In Europe there is evidence in several locations showing Neanderthals using fire that dates back 400,000 years including one site in the UK, Beech’s Pit near Stow in Suffolk.

It is thought that initially early human ancestors learnt to harness and control naturally occurring fires; bush fires, lighting strikes and larva flows. This use and subsequent control of fire by hominids has been described as the “single most important innovation in our evolution”.

Its utilisation would have been profound, it would;-
Deter predators
Deter insects
Drive game
Warm cold hands and bodies
Heat shelters
Dry wet clothes
Dry and preserve food for later use
Have ceremonial use
Act as a tool

You could also

burn through wood to fell trees

Melt plant resins to make glues
Temper flint and other rocks to make it easier to knap
Make charcoal for medicine and drawing
Smoke hides
Art; making mineral pigments and charcoal
Clearing land and undergrowth and adding minerals to the ground for agriculture
Provide light and therefore extend the working day
Cook meat making it easier to digest and killing harmful parasites
Cook plant material – again making it more digestible and breaking down certain toxins

It is thought that these last three factors particularly, had a major impact on human evolution. The large brains of Homo sapiens and our immediate ancestors required a lot of energy. Cooked food is much more easily digested than raw food and therefore uses far less calories to chew and digest and allows for a shorter, less calorie dependent digestive tract. This provided the additional calories required to allow our brains to grow to the size that they are. (Wrangham- Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human 2010)

Bushcraft Course
Cooking on an open fire

In addition another theory is that this then shaped our appearance; because we didn’t need to process raw meat and tough roots our jaws and teeth became smaller, and because we needed less intestines to digest our food our torso became thinner.

The light provided by fire allowed early humans to continue with activities long after darkness fell, time spent around the fire communally in the evenings may have facilitated the development of language and culture just as it continues to do in many indigenous societies today. There is also a school of thought that believes that the light from fire inhibited the release of a hormone called melantonin in the brain which not only affects our body clock but has an effect on reproduction, making humans more fertile!

No one can ever be certain, but those first human ancestors may have been drawn to naturally occurring fires in search of food; to scavenge the remains of animals caught in the fire, to dig up fire baked roots or even after insects. From that initial contact and the subsequently loss of fear, it wouldn’t have taken long to realise that by adding more fuel they could keep the fire going.

Perhaps the partially cooked animal remains and baked plants they found after a bush fire tasted better than the raw meat and roots they were used to, and they would also have observed that other animals were naturally scared of the flames. It certainly wouldn’t have taken long before they realised that fire had many benefits.

The next part of the fire story would have been learning how to transport fire from one location to another. Even today many indigenous tribes rarely light a fire from scratch; indeed some have almost lost the ability to do that completely. Smouldering branches, various types of dried fungi etc. can all be made to smoulder slowly and kept glowing for considerable periods of time, allowing a fire to be rekindled quickly when setting up a new camp for the night.

It is thought, that this is exactly what our ancestors did for over 1.5 million years. Most archaeologists agree that it wasn’t until our species, Homo sapiens evolved, less than 200, 000 years ago, that we actually discovered the ability to create fire from scratch.

The earliest form of fire lighting was thought to be achieved by creating sparks by hitting rocks together. Anyone who has knapped flint in dim light conditions will have noticed that occasionally sparks are generated when two rocks are bashed together, especially if one of the pieces is rich in iron deposits. Our ancestors begun working stone tools as far back as 2.6 million years ago and would certainly have been aware of this phenomenon. These small, low temperature sparks, if showered onto the right material (charcoal, tinder fungus etc.) have the ability to get those materials to smoulder.

This technique continued to be used right up until at least the late Neolithic and Bronze Age. “Otzi”, the Ice Man frozen in a glacier in the Alps, not only had a birch bark container stuffed with maple leaves for carrying embers, he also had a piece of dried tinder fungus on which traces of iron pyrites were found. This was thought to be his fire lighting kit.

The history of friction fire lighting is even more obscure. Wood items are rarely preserved for archaeologists to find. Chances are that once a friction fire lighting set was finished it would end up as fire wood anyway. In different parts of the world varying forms of friction fire lighting exist. In large parts of sub-Saharan Africa, in the South-Western United States, parts of South America and parts of Australia the hand drill was an occasionally still is widely used. In South-East Asia, parts of Australia and areas where bamboo grows the fire saw was the method of choice. The fire plough is utilised by various Polynesian people such as the Maoris and also the Bakka in the African Congo.

Rare access granted to Jason and his team to reasearch the hand drill examples at the Pitt Rivers Museum Oxford

The friction method that most people are familiar with is the fire bow. Although there is no archaeological record for it in Europe, the ancient Egyptians used the technique as did some Native American tribes. It is probably the easiest method of friction fire lighting to master. The mechanical advantage of using the bow allows the drill or spindle to be rotated more quickly than could otherwise be achieved and it also allows the free hand to exert considerable downward pressure on to the top of the drill increasing the friction. The net result is that more energy can be put into the system which not only improves the chances of success but allows dense woods to be used that would not work with the other friction methods.

In northern Europe sparks rather than friction continued to be the method of choice. Once iron could be extracted from its ore, the raw metal could be used. Small particles of iron, such as those created when it is struck against a hard sharp edge such as on a piece of flint, are pyrophoric (derived from the Greek meaning “fire bearing”; – it spontaneously ignites in air). By the Middle Ages purpose made fire steels were being produced and this method continued to be used until the phosphorous match came into widespread use in the early 19th century.

At the beginning of the 20th century Carl Auer von Helsbach developed a pyrophoric alloy known as ferrocerium (iron and cerium) which easily produced showers of sparks when scratched. These sparks were considerably hotter (16500C) than the sparks given by steel on its own which has an ignition temperature of about 8000C and are more easily produced as the cerium will ignite at a relatively low temperature of 1800C. This led to these new alloys becoming the “flints” in modern cigarette lighters.

The modern fire steels commonly used in bushcraft today, are essentially the same ferrocerium rods but now have other elements including magnesium mixed into the alloy to give sparks that are even hotter…….30000C and will therefore light a wider range of materials.

The Crowds Gather for Jason’s Fire Presentation in Edingburgh


Director Jason Ingamells on stage at Edingburgh

If we’ve got you a little bit excited about fire now, then don’t forget to come and see Jason and the team at the Bushcraft Show this year where we will be doing a big presentation on fire, its history, its science and its uses… one not to be missed! Alternatively you can join us on our Woodland Ways Weekend, our bread and butter Bushcraft Course where you too can learn the skills on friction fire lighting and flint and steel.

Related posts