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Posted by on Mar 15, 2010 in Blogh | 2 comments

More Fire

Fire and Evolution


The Spark That Ignited Human Evolution

By Frances D. Burton

University of New Mexico Press




By David W. Anthony

Princeton University Press

Princeton and Oxford


I didn’t expect to read three books on Fire this year. Some research is like that. I usually have a program of reading, a project, most often a novel, I am researching. But working in a library is perilous, and I pick up books like lint or briars. Three of them have been on fire, and a fourth, which I think relates in a tangential way (the only way of any interest to me), is about the spread of Indo-European languages. The first two fire books I’ve written about, Norman McLean’s Young Men and Fire and Stephen Pyne’s A Brief History of Fire.

Burton’s FIRE is the work of an evolutionary biologist, a man who studies old world monkeys and apes. His thesis is that millions of years before hominin’s started to control fire, they opportunistically hung around fire and that this initiated changes both in behaviour and in biochemistry that triggered further hominin evolution. He identifies a feedback loop, one part of which is the effect fire has on the human hormone system, as it prolongs exposure to light. Prolonging the day, by sleeping near fire (for warmth, protection and food) changes melatonin levels, which affects circadian rhythms and fertility. His evidence comes from a close observation of monkey and ape behaviour around fire as well as a wealth of recent studies on cognition, brain development, epigenetic evolution and primate behaviour and language use. His is a book in which theory and empirical evidence dance so close I got hot just watching it. It is also a passionate argument for the complex evolution of animal and human consciousness, where considerable amounts of planning, analysis and intention are exhibited by animals. Particularly exciting is the observation of the interface of behaviour and genetic evolution, and the story of how humans have gradually freed themselves of physical evolution, and how the development of the brain, following bipedality, made possible behaviours that triggered further changes in the brain development. A dialectical, systems approach. Beautiful.

Here is Burton stating his thesis after a book of supporting evidence:

“My view of human evolution is that the acquisition of fire was the engine that propelled the incredibly fast evolution of humans. Directly or indirectly, it affected the cognitive processes, social processes, genetic systems, reproduction, the immune system, and digestion, among others. It may even have enhanced hair loss. The speed is reckoned from a geologic perspective. The hominin trajectory is incredibly fast: beginning more or less at about 15 to 19 million years ago, and by 6 million years, hominins are moderately bipedal. By 4 million years they are advancing rapidly in facial and dental structure, and by 2 to 2.6 million years we have evidence of people using stone tools, taking the direction of their own change into their own hands. By just over 1.5 million years ago, our ancestors—now a cosmopolitan species found in Africa, Europe and Asia—were leaving traces of fire use. This is a qualitatively different trajectory from other primates, who were evolving over the same time span. The pattern of change, the rate of change, and the number of genes involved are apparently unique to our lineage….”

Fire, as Pyne points out in his book, evolved with life on this planet. Many animals take advantage of fire. There are bugs that are attracted to recently burned over grass, and birds and primates that feed on those bugs. Grasslands are renewed by periodic fire, and the sweet, tender grasses that emerge attract herds of browsing animals. Humans and other predators live off of those herds. Humans intentionally burned the grasslands where they lived to encourage and feed off of both vegetable materials and animals. Humans hunted with fire, followed fire and used fire. When they developed agriculture humans used fire to clear land and fertilize the soil. They also used it to make pottery, stone tools and smelt metals, as well as transform inedible tubers and fibrous plants into food.

Anthony’s book on the spread of Indo-European languages is the work of an archaeologist who has gone over to the other side and used the methods of historical linguistics, often scorned by his colleagues, to put together a picture of the natal lands of one of the world’s largest (perhaps the largest?) language families. These are the steppes of south-eastern Europe and Central Asia, a vast sea of grass stretching from Europe to Mongolia. And he never mentions fire, though surely fire was native to this land and was the silent partner of all the people living there, including the subjects of his book. Fire only comes into the picture when he describes the presence of smiths in these ancient villages. The smiths were apparently shamanic people, the keepers not only of the secrets of fire but its power to transmute earth into metal, the first act of alchemy.

“The grave at Pershin was not the only smith’s grave of the period. Metal workers were clearly identified in several Yamana-period [ca 3000 BCE] graves, perhaps because metal-working was still a form of shamanic magic, and the tools remained dangerously polluted by the spirit of the dead smith.”

When I was at Oberlin I took a class in Indian religion. Larry Shin was the professor. He introduced us to the matriarchal Indus Valley civilization and the idea that Indo-European warriors had descended upon them and destroyed them, replacing the old goddess with the male trinity, the caste system and other odious innovations. This was appealing to me, as it set up an historical wrong that reverberated down to our own day in the form of patriarchy. These Indo-Europeans had done the same job of destruction to Greece. After leaving Oberlin I immersed myself in the work of Robert Graves, whom I knew as the author of I, Claudius. One day I found The White Goddess and read it through. Now the cycle was complete, my poet self and historical self had a myth of human historical development with an enemy to explain the fall.

Over the years I have read the corrections to this model, but Anthony’s book, despite its lack of fire, does much to fill in the details of who these people were and what enabled them to spread so far. First of all, as is true of other historical migrations and the spread of languages and material culture around the globe, he disputes the idea of well-armed hordes descending on the peaceful Old Stone Age villages of Europe and spreading the object/subject split, grammar and fire. Instead he charts the rise of their material culture, especially the domestication of the horse and the evolution of a political system in which patrons and clients, starting with the gods and extending down through humans, have obligations to each other. Humans owe the gods rituals and prayer, and the gods in return owe humans a variety of boons. Sometimes this complex, which included the chariot as a superior war machine, spread by fire and sword and sometimes through trade contacts and peaceful migration. What they brought and what people adopted was a very successful way life. With that life came language and ritual. The language was necessary to perform the rituals.

Well, it’s on to water now.


  1. Great post, Jon! Somehow, I never pieced together that “I, Claudius” and “The White Goddess” where penned by the same fellow … sorry for my ignorance, but that’s a bit of two worlds colliding for me!

    Anyhow, I enjoyed this piece. I’d add to it only that the New Testament sees fire as tongues, which, perhaps mistakenly/drunkenly, makes me think of Philip K Dick.

    Also, for some interesting stuff on evolution from a site that I recently discovered, see:




  2. Hey Gid, glad you liked the post. I’ll check out the links.
    The symbolism of fire is something all of these authors are aware of, especially Prometheus, and the near universal association of fire and civilization. But tongues of fire, and Philip K Dick are of course metaphysical fire (I assume, since PKD is always after failed transcendence…) I could go on…

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