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Fire and the Genus Homo

Organizers' Statement

Francesco Berna (Simon Fraser University)
Dennis Sandgathe (Simon Fraser University)

For at least the last two million years hominins have evolved both biologically and technologically and these two facets of adaptation are strongly entwined. At some point in prehistory fire use became one of the most important of the technological components of this interplay: it has undoubtedly had major effects on our biological evolution, which in turn likely led to other major technological changes, such as the development of clothing and artificial shelter and changes in hominin diets. In fact, the biology, ecology, and behavior of modern humans are so deeply entangled with fire-use that the survival of our species has come to depend on it in some form or another. Thus, work on the evidence of early fire use is clearly necessary to help answer the fundamental anthropological question: "How did humans become human?"

While there has always been general interest among anthropologists and archaeologists in the role of fire in prehistory, initially the research was focussed more on trying to recognize the oldest available evidence for hominin use of fire. However, we now recognize that the first evidence for hominin use of fire does not necessarily mark the point at which hominins learned how to make it or when it became an inextricable part of all hominin technological repertoires. Therefore, recent interest has shifted to trying to understand how and when fire use became an established and integral part of all hominin cultures and what processes led up to this. Researchers have come to appreciate that the history of hominin use of fire is more complex than previously thought and the potential evidence of hominin use of fire needs to be viewed more critically.

Based on different types of data there currently seems to be four general models or alternative views on the timing and nature of the adoption of fire use:

  1. The "Cooking Hypothesis": Homo erectus was fully adapted to a cooked food diet and had controlled use of fire beginning around two million years ago.
  2. Intermittent use of fire began in the African Early Stone Age (during the Lower Pleistocene). This would be populations of H. erectus and early H. heidelbergensis.
  3. The first significant use of fire occurred during the Middle Pleistocene with hominins in the process of moving into and adapting to cooler, high latitude regions of Eurasia.
  4. Complete control of fire appeared only with the appearance of H. sapiens in the Late Pleistocene at the onset of the African Late Stone Age/Eurasian Upper Palaeolithic.

This symposium is designed to bring together people conducting leading research on the origin of the controlled use of fire and its cultural and biological significance to the genus Homo. These researchers have begun to collect, review and employ new types of archaeological and biological data and have started to pose new questions about the role of fire in human evolution.

The objectives of the symposium are to:

  • Discuss best possible approaches to the collection and integration of data: what types of data are particularly important for understanding prehistoric fire use, what are the interpretive limits of the data, and what is the importance of disseminating them? Should (and can) certain standards of data collection be established? Are there other types of data that we should be collecting?
  • Develop a common understanding of what is meant by the terms 'occasional', ‘habitual', and ‘controlled’ use of fire. These terms have become common in the literature, but different researchers may have slightly different intentions with their use and different understandings of their implications.
  • Develop methodological criteria by which researchers could: distinguish natural from human-produced fire residues and so identify when humans started to use fire occasionally; when they began to use it habitually; and when they developed the technology to create it. These have implications for questions of hominin migrations and distributions, hominin diet and the onset of 'modern behavior.'
  • Examine the role that cooking may have played in the evolution of the Genus Homo.
  • Address questions about the function of fire in pre-modern human adaptations. What were hominins specifically using fire for?  How reliant on fire were they?