We don’t know exactly when the first human or human ancestor successfully created fire for the first time for themselves. We do know that homonids have been using fire for over one million years but for many thousands over years we probably harvested and maintained naturally occurring bush fires and kept them going.  It is likely that the hand drill was the first method used to create fire and perhaps it happened accidentally whilst trying to drill a hole through one piece of wood with another.

As early humans spread across the African continent and beyond they would have encountered different woods of varying qualities and properties and so the technique would have been adapted to respond to this and so the fire plough, the fire saw and the fire thong would have developed. As cro-magnon man reached north-west Europe some 30,000 years ago the continent was gripped by an ice age. The few trees that were around would have grown slowly in the colder conditions and with closely spaced growth rings would have been much harder than those our ancestors had previously encountered and few would have been suitable for attaining an ember using the friction fire lighting techniques available.  Although there is no archaeological record to support it in Europe early humans at that time had developed the bow for hunting and so it is not a big leap of faith to imagine them twisting the bow string around a drill and using the bow to rotate the drill more rapidly. In so doing they then freed up the other hand to apply increased amounts of downward pressure. This combination of greater speed and more pressure would have enabled them to utilise the harder woods. We certainly know that Native American tribes were utilising the method when the first European settlers arrived in America and we have archaeological evidence proving that it was used by the Ancient Egyptians.

All friction fire lighting techniques work on the principle of the two main components wearing away against each other creating sawdust which gets hot with friction. The resultant hot, charred dust is collected in a way which conserves and builds the generated heat allowing it reach a temperature where it forms a coal i.e. begins to glow.

Another ancient fire lighting technique that has been in existence almost dating back to the first human arrivals in Europe is using various rocks to create sparks. Some iron ores such as iron pyrites if struck with flint will produce tiny low temperature sparks which if repeatedly aimed at something dry and fibrous may eventually result in a small, smouldering ember. This method was certainly used in the Neolithic and Bronze age periods in Europe as proved when the frozen body of Otzi was found in the Alps some years ago.  On his belt, in a leather pouch, were found some pieces of flint (some hafted onto antler handles), some iron pyrites and some Horses Hoof or False Tinder fungus.  This bracket fungus which grows on Birch as well as other fungi can be scraped to produce fine fluffy tinder onto which the sparks could be struck.

After the iron age humans had the ability to produce the metal its self so the iron pyrites was replaced with iron and the method persisted.  Specially designed fire “steels” were being forged by the anglo saxon period but any relatively low grade steel would produce sparks if struck with flint and so the backs of knives or other tools were utilised if a purpose made steel was unavailable. Tinder choice for this technique were still relatively limited; Horse Hoof or other fungi were still utilised and sometimes approved upon by some degree of processing, alternatively a range of charred materials could be used, of which charcloth is perhaps the best known.

This method of fire lighting would have continued lighting until the 19th century when matches first became widely available. It was also used in firearms, the old flintlock muskets relied on pieces of knapped flint scraping steel with the sparks igniting the gunpowder.  The first “lighters” developed in the 17th century adapted the firing mechanisms from flintlock rifles.

Modern style cigarette lighters were first developed in the early 20th century when Baron Carl Auer von Welsbach developed ferrocerium.  Cerium is a rare earth metal that sparks a very low temperature when scraped against a rough surface to make it more brittle and therefore giving it the ability to break into smaller pieces producing more sparks it is reacted with iron to give an intermetallic compound. This then became the “flint” in modern style lighters.

This compound has been developed further in recent years. With the addition of lanthanum, magnesium and other rare earth metals to give bigger, higher temperature sparks the modern day firesteel has been created. These are being increasingly used in the outdoors for modern day fire lighting. They have many advantages over lighters and matches; they are far longer lasting, they are resistant to water, and will work even in extreme temperatures. With the correct technique they can ignite a large range of both manmade and natural materials from cotton wool to alcohol hand gel, form Birch bark to dried grass.

When travelling to remote areas it is worth learning and then perfecting the skills needed to start a fire using a range of different techniques so that even if one method fails you still have a selection of alternatives at your disposal. Never under estimate the importance of fire in a survival situation. As discussed earlier humans have lived in harmony with fire for over one million years and it is an intrinsic part of our psyche as anyone who has sat round a campfire will testify.

If you’d like to discover much more about fire and the practices of producing this vital component to human life you can pre-order our comprehensive fire book here

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