Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Forged by fire, our Promethean origins

Prometheus by Jan Cossiers

Our relationship with fire is ancient and intimate. Early in our hominid prehistory we borrowed useful fire from natural causes. Later, like mythological Prometheus, we stole fire from the gods: We learned to create fire at will.  That essential primitive skill energized a cultural leap and much more. Our relationship with fire became reciprocal: Arguably, fire recreated us. We have been torch bearers, dependent upon fire, shaped by fire, from that early time.

Early humans obtained mastery of fire as they came to depend on fire for warmth, for light, for cooking, for hunting, for landscape management, and for defense. They obtained far reaching impacts through mastery of fire. Early humans manipulated local habitats and broad ecosystems in favor of human utility through broadcast fire, intentionally igniting landscapes of dry fuel for coordinated fire-hunting and to create favorable conditions for attracting and supporting desired game species, and to ease overland travel.

Early humans became hearth-centered. The hearth became the crucible of human evolution, both biological and cultural. Fire was the soul of the family hearth, whether a nuclear family or a clan. Even today, we gather 'round our occasional campfires and stare into flames as they stared long ago. Flickering flames connect us with past and present native peoples across time and space.

Few moderns possess primitive fire knowledge and fire skills. For most, fear of fire has replaced utility fire. Today, we ask our engineers to control fire, indoors and out. Most societies, even native societies, have surrendered their mastery of primitive fire methods in favor of technological dependence. Western societies have transitioned from manual open combustion to mechanical internal combustion. During our lifetimes the last of the ancient societies may give up their traditional skills in trade for purchased fire systems and other modern tools. Like loss of languages, loss of skills sets for primitive living is an ongoing tragedy unfolding today in forgotten corners around the world. For now, at least, we still can travel to remote tribes and see and learn of ancient technologies passed through hundreds of generations for as long as they remember their primitive life-ways and so long as they will allow us a peak.

Our ancient ancestors understood the different functions of tinder, kindling, fuels, portable fire carriers, and much later, fire starters. Today, we purchase fire and all of its functions.

Explore our Promethean origins. We recommend a couple good reads by Stephen Pyne, Fire: A Brief History, 2001 and Fire in America, A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire, 1982 and 1997. We have gained essential insights from these works.

Your blogger met Stephen Pyne at a lonely outpost in Antarctica, Dome C, long ago, where Pyne developed insights and gathered materials for his book, The Ice, A Journey to Antarctica 1986 and I spent my days digging, coring and studying ice dynamics. Our few evening conversations left indelible insights that still enrich my thinking of human impacts on global ecosystems, today.

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