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Wildfires may have been our ancestors’ friend in foraging

Don’t tell my kids until they’re at least, I don’t know, 10? but fire is awesome. Aside from giving us light, identifying elements your high school science teacher is burning, repelling tigers and emasculating gods, fire has played a critical role in human history, possibly playing a role in our very anatomy. Despite this obvious importance, people have often thought of humans’ early interactions with fire as some sort of lucky happenstance, like some sort of last-minute plot twist in an episode of House. In reality, humanity’s relationship with fire was likely much more deliberate, as fire may have been prevalent in our ancestors’ lives.

The crux of this hypothesis is environmental data. Researchers from the University of Utah looked at ancient African dirt, called paleosols, to see what kind of plant life was most abundant two to three million years ago. Woody and fire-prone grasses leave a trail of specific carbon isotopes, and researchers could look for trends at different time periods to estimate how fire-friendly various locations were when early Homo ancestors were around. What they found was that many tropical plants were being replaced by more combustible grasses as the climate grew more arid. Combined with further evidence from fossilized wood, it appears that fire was not a bizarre anomaly, but part of normal experience.

Benefitting from a blaze

Reoccurring fires likely taught these Homo ancestors new ways to forage. Fire doesn’t send most animals into a complete panic, and these ancestors could have benefited from methodically following in the wake of forest fires. As the fire burned away brush and cover, everything from cooked seeds to bare animals dens would be exposed, basically laying out a strategy for efficient (if destructive) foraging alongside the flames. If members of the Homo genus became adept at manipulating forest fires, it may be a technological “missing link” to later evidence of controlled fires in fire pits. It may have also helped our ancestors venture out of their original ecological niches in Africa, allowing them to expand into Europe and Africa. While foraging after a burn seems crude, it may have been a critical step in humanity’s history of bending our surroundings to our meet our needs.

Source: Early humans followed the fire? by University of Utah, Popular Archaeology

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