Quest for fire


Not so long ago it was believed that the earliest use of fire dating back to ca. 790,000 years ago was discovered by scientists by the ancient Lake Hula in the Valley of the Jordan River, in the village of Gesher Benot Ya’agov (GBY) in Israel. Since no remnants of hominidae were found there the find was associated with various species: Homo ergaster, Homo erectus, and even Homo sapiens. However, bearing in mind the remaining concentrations of burnt organic matter, it is believed that the use of fire was already controlled and conscious, since the temperature of the flame, verified by experimental methods, was 660-930 °C, and so was thus higher than that of natural fires which could be observed in the then marshland. Traces similar to those found in Israel or in South Africa were discovered in Northern China in the Zhoukoudian caves. Fire was used there by Homo erectus, dubbed Peking Man, more than 460,000 years ago, but there is evidence suggesting that it could have been used long before this period, and this is confirmed using analytical methods.


Recent studies by scientists from the University of Toronto and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (carried out in 2012) revealed that Homo erectus was the oldest known representative of the anthropoids capable of using fire – as early as about one million years ago. He could also make small stone tools, a fact authenticated by archaeological finds at the Wonderwerk Cave in the province of Northern Cape in the Republic of South Africa, deemed the cradle of humankind. The find comprised the oldest known ash from plant remains and burnt fragments of animal bones and near the cave there were traces of wood ash and stone tools. Their analysis showed that they were burnt intentionally and not as a result of natural phenomena, e.g. by lightning. Scientists also discovered extensive discolouring on the surface of the cave, which is characteristic of conscious burning.



Similar paleontological sites in various regions of the world, however not as old as those in Africa, also confirm that Homo erectus, Homo ergaster and Homo habilis were capable of controlling fire although scientists’ opinions regarding where and when it took place for the first time have not yet been fully verified. 


The controlled use of fire enabled our predecessors to better protect their living quarters against predators and insects. They could also hunt at night. The change in diet contributed to a reduced mortality rate. There were more options for finding food and improving living conditions. Thus, the control of fire became a turning point in the evolution of the hominidae. It contributed to changes in the structure of the brain which allowed abstract thinking, conscious planning and forecasting consequences. The use of fire primarily for utility purposes (heating, lighting, roasting, cooking), and later for magical rituals, was a cultural discriminant. It had considerable impact on their physiolo-gical development and socialization.


The first records of other uses of fire were rock engravings and paintings preserved in Namibia, Sudan, southern France, Spain, Ukraine, China, North America, Siberia and Australia. They were made by firelight as early as in the Upper Palaeolithic and additionally, as studies reveal, for example, of the culture of the Damara People of Namibia (about 35,000 years BCE), with knowledge of the paint preparation process. Namely, limestone mixed with common eland’s blood was baked in a fire to produce white and brown. Also charcoal and natural clay were used for painting.



In Poland, the oldest although definitely younger (about 500,000 years BCE) and smaller residues of hearths and organic remains from camps were recorded in Silesia (Kończyce Wielkie, Trzebnica) and in Lesser Poland. It is likely that in the Middle Palaeolithic (130,000-110,000 years BCE) the first hearths used for smoking food appeared in southern Poland (Kraków, Kleparz). On the other hand, in the Neolithic Period individuals living in what is now modern-day Poland were already able to shape round pots baked in fires. The discoveries of ceramic artefacts dating back to 5,000-4,700 years BCE contributed to naming that population the Linear Pottery Culture.


It is believed that fire was used for metal ore smelting for the first time about 3,500 years BCE in the Middle East (in Anatolia). This skill contributed to the development of civilisation in the Bronze Age and subsequently in the Iron Age.