Fire and its deliberate creation of fire is something that only humans do, just about any other attribute that homo sapiens possess can be found elsewhere in the animal kingdom but not fire.
Some of the earliest archaeological evidence of human habitation features fire or a fireplace. It is something that has been in the human toolkit for most of our existence as a species. It has enabled us to populate almost every continent on earth and enabled us to survive through ice ages that otherwise would have been almost impossible!
I think that as a species it’s as relevant to refer to ourselves as homo ignis (man of fire) as it is to use homo sapiens (man of wisdom). I think that staring into a fire is so meditative to so many cultures around the world that we can infer that mankind coevolved with fire.
The worldview of the ancients (at least in the European tradition) had four elements – earth, air, water and fire. It is seen as a transformative element rather than a destructive one.
Do you want pottery? You need clay and fire. Do you want cooked food? You need fire. Do you want to smelt metal? You need fire. Do you want to make it through winter and into spring alive? If you’re in a temperate part of the world you also need it. The list is almost endless.
The two ages that ushered in the widespread use of technology are named after metal (the bronze age and the iron age) and both of those required us to optimise fire to produce higher temperatures than had been possible previously.
The industrial revolution…
The next great leap in western material creation was the industrial revolution, initially water powered but the adoption of steam power was what enabled it’s exponential growth and brought the cost of a great many goods down to the level that ordinary working people could afford a level of material decency that would otherwise been denied them. In a very real sense, this stage of mankind’s relationship with fire was what brought goods into the homes of the ordinary people that would otherwise been reserved for the wealthy, almost a democratisation of the essentials of life.
From iron bedsteads to ceramic teapots, there were now the artefacts of a decent standard of living available and affordable to almost everyone for the first time in human history and it was driven by our control of fire.
Into the current age, we are more dependent on fire for our existence than ever. Our lives are all touched by the internal combustion engine (for better or worse, time will decide) and electricity with most of the former still generated by the burning of fossil fuels with the attendant impact to our environment. Even if you drive an electric vehicle there is a good chance that the source of that electricity will be fossil fuels depending on your provider.
One of the most enjoyable activities for me demands fire, namely the fine art of barbecuing. There is something deeply primeval about the combination of man, flesh and flame that resonates with me and I will spark up the coals with minimal provocation, I have barbecued the Christmas turkey in the snow on more than one occasion which my long-suffering family will attest and for which there is photographic evidence!!!