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On new ways of lighting a fire and unexpected benefits

I tend to put pen to paper (or rather fingers to keys) when something I have done recently makes me look at or think of bushcraft in a different way and this is one of those times.

Last weekend I was asked if I would come along to an event to display some skills and give a talk around the role of fire in human evolution. With both subjects being a passion of mine and the event being a gathering of like minded people as well as those wanting to find out more I jumped at the chance. So packing a few things I whizzed over to show and teach folk some of the skills I enjoy.

On getting there I was lucky enough to be sited next to some other bushcraft demonstrators and as you might imagine we talked about different skills and methods of lighting fires. One of the people there, Paul Smith (, specialises in ancient skills and had a hand drill set with him. This is one of the harder lighting methods relying on producing heat through friction and pressure but without the help of a bow and brace which you see in the bow drill system. Due to the fact there are fewer elements to the equipment it could easily be argued this was an earlier way humans used to tease a flame to life. As something I have never put in enough time to master I was very keen to give it a go and am proud to say that after a few minuets of effort and some hard work I got myself a nice glowing ember suitable to build up to a flame and fire!

This technically simple but deceptively skilful method makes up some of the tool kit our early ancestors would have used alongside stone blades or bone needles, plant fibre cord and animal skin pouches and much more but like much of the tool kit of the time a hand drill would very rarely survive to the present day as the organic nature of it means it rots and breaks down quickly so that often it's only the flint tools which were also used that survive to be studied now.

On the subject of fire many who study evolution and anthropology will point to how it opened up a wealth of nutrition to early primates all of whom began their evolution in Africa. It's thought that natural fires might have cracked seed husks open or killed small mammals too slow to run from a bush fire and opportunistic primates could rush in after the fire died down to eat this excellent source of calories which started us on our journey towards a co-evolution with fire. Later it might be the case that these natural fires were taken from their site of origin as burning branches and were nurtured to start more controlled fires to roast captured game or similar and we can see evidence of this as far back a 1.9MYA with deposits of charcoal and heated earth indicative of a campfire. But much of this happened on land close to the equator where the cycle of seasons is hardly felt and days and nights are warm and hardly differ in length over the year. Because of this we tend to think more about the benefits in the form of cooking and possibly protection from wild animals but there is much beyond this which fire gave us.

Sitting there in a field looking at my little ember on a cold and darkening November day it made me think about what our ancestors, who much later travelled far to the north of the equator, used their fires for. While cooking is always going to be on the menu as it were, I think warmth, light and even smoke would have all been very welcome parts of what a campfire can give.

The light a fire brings lets us stretch out our day so that when the winter sun dips below the horizon earlier and earlier, groups of people could gather and commune, they could push back the dark and give more time to songs and stories, more time to family and community and with that build culture and bonds that would help them to work, hunt and live together better. Remember as well that we spent most of our evolutionary history close to the equator where days and nights are 12 hours, our circadian rhythms or body clocks if you prefer developed around this and optimised our bodies for this predictable cycle. The further north (or south) we moved the more we encountered days and nights which varied far more over the year and while humans are incredibly adaptable and have been in these areas for many many millennia this doesn't compare to the deep time spent evolving at the equator, so perhaps this stretching of the day in the darker months helped us in more ways than we might first imagine.

As humans pushed further and further north to where the winters become more harsh they would also begin to learn by necessity to construct shelters, some perhaps made for brief camps and built simply from branches and undergrowth while others may have been in the form of draped or stitched animal hide taken with a group and erected across a frame and used over and over. It's easy to imagine these shelters with early hearths, small fires ringed with stones where the warmth of the fire could be fed into the stones which in turn could be used to boil water held in animal skins or even placed under animal hide to release their heat through the night like neolithic hot water bottles! This heat would be added to that of the bodies of others in the shelter and perhaps even their dogs as well. With the fire tended through the long night when people can't keep warm though activities like hunting or herding it would allow groups to spread further and further north and stay there for longer and longer rather than migrating each summer and winter and might have even enabled permanent settlement.

And smoke? there is an argument that we evolved to lose much of our body hair both to better shed heat from our body when running but also to reduce our susceptibility to things like fleas, lice, ticks and similar unpleasant things that live in thick fur and hair. But living a life wrapped in furs, sleeping and living closely in groups and perhaps laying down with dogs, and waking up with fleas as the saying goes might have left us vulnerable to such afflictions again. However if you have ever sat round a camp fire on a warm summer night with the smoke blowing over you, you will know that while you might smell of that same campfire in the morning it won't be you counting the bites on your skin the next day and so keeping a fire going in your small but warm shelter may very well keep the biting insects at bay and fumigating hides or even yourself! in smoke will help kill those already on you and your furs, just one more benefit of fire when you live in the more northern latitudes.

All of this and more is why I love the fire skills involved in bushcraft, it's not only incredibly satisfying to be able to get a fire going in this way but it opens up the way you look at fire and all of its many benefits, it makes you think about how people lived with it, depended on it and how it shaped our evolution, culture and everything we have done through our long history.

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