Prometheus Unbound: New Evidence on Humans’ Early Use of Fire

Grottes de Gargas 1910 (Félix Régnault)

I woke up this morning fully intending to end my two weeks of silence on this blog – due to familial obligations – with a preliminary examination of the role of ducks in French cuisine. But that alluring topic took a sudden backseat when I opened up my local newspaper and read, “Humans May have Used Fire 1 Million Years Ago.”

Recent archaeological finds in a South Africa’s Wonderwerk Cave place human use of fire at least several hundreds of thousands of years earlier than the commonly accepted date. No firm conclusions about cooking seem to be emerging from this study, although the implications of controlling fire were far-reaching. Warmth, safety, tool-making, etc.

And, I think, cooking. Somehow.

Of course, as a food and cooking enthusiast, I speculated on the cooking part of it. But more on that later.

If you’ve never had the opportunity to visit one of the ancients’ caves, you’d be surprised at what they actually are like. Forget the image of the fire roaring at the mouth of the cave, fending off the saber-tooth tiger. Humans moved far to the back of the cave.

Most caves – at least the deep ones – take after a thawing freezer: cold, wet, and slippery.

Wonderwerk Cave

This picture of the Wonderwerk Cave so closely resembles the Grottes de Gargas in  the Haute-Pyrénées of southern France that I started thinking about caves and early humans and how life must have been like for them, a life that we moderns like to sum up in terms of the Paleolithic Diet and sometimes other nostalgic nonsense.

Entrance to Grottes de Gargas (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

A year ago, in early September, I toured the Grottes de Gargas. For some reason, the people who lived in this cave painted hands throughout the cave, but not just any hands, deformed hands. In all, 239 of them, dating to approximately 30,000 years ago. (See Wildgoose, Hadingham, and Hooper for more.) I wonder: were these women’s hands or men’s hands?

Grottes de Gargas

But, backing up a bit here, what stayed with me, far more than the chilling reminders of the fleetingness of life and its dangers as those hands so pognantly testified, was the physical sensation of being in the cave. After five minutes of walking on prepared paths, lit by lightbulbs hanging from wires strung like lace across the damp surface of the cave ceiling, cautioned by the guide not to step off because of the damage  feet could do the cave floor over time, the wet cold began to sneak through my sweatshirt. We walked for nearly thirty minutes, meandering sometimes through narrow passages no wider than a seat on a cheap airline. By the end of the tour, I shivered almost uncontrollably, longing to run away, out into the sunlight and the heat of the day. I kept thinking, “It’s not even winter, it’s just September, and I am so cold … .”

Hands at Gargas*

I spent the ride back to the hotel thinking about those long-dead people, huddled around a fire, trying to keep warm, during a Pyrénées winter.

All of us preoccupied with food, cooking, eating, and the history thereof revel in the constant thrill of new material like this coming from South Africa, which enlarges our understanding of what humans did to survive. The odds were slim, as anyone knows who’s wandered through strange, dimly lit forests or darted into dark caves without the benefit of a survival manual.

The only survival manual owned by early humans rested between their ears, not just their proverbial large brains, but the knowledge that they passed down orally, making all that lost oral tradition a true loss, all the more reason to look long and hard at the myths that escaped the axe of memory. (See “Ways of Interpreting Myth” on Dr. Michael Webster’s Website.)

But  just how humans used it remains a bit perplexing.

Richard Wrangham, who wrote Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (2009), discussed the role of fire in human evolution, while archaeologists suggested that  the earliest human use of fire dated back only 400,000 years ago.

So this new study could be quite significant.

Caveman myths aside, could it be possible that cooking flesh began not because early humans came across charred carcasses of animals after forest or prairie fires caused by lightning strikes, but because they harvested fire from nature, burned themselves or saw others in their bands burned, put two and two together? After all, burns remain one of the leading causes of death among women cooking food at the hearth or even today in Africa and elsewhere – where wood-fueled/charcoal fires or small one-burner-gas stoves provide the wherewithal for cooking.

I find these sorts of archaeological revelations engrossing indeed, because theories only last as long as the evidence supporting them remains static. We will never know all the answers to our questions and speculations, because people either didn’t yet possess the skill of writing or, if they did, they simply didn’t record the things we would dearly love to know.

If the hands in the Grottes de Gargas represented women’s hands, did they lose their finger tips from fire?

I wonder.

For more on myth and history, see Anne Holden Ronning, “Some Reflections on Myths, History, and Memory as Determinants of Narrative” (Coolabah 3, 2009)

For more on the Paleolithic Diet and the scientific thinking surrounding it, see

Staffan Lindeberg. Food and Western Disease: Health and Nutrition from an Evolutionary Perspective (2010)

*No photography allowed inside the cave, unless with special permission.

Photo credit: J. Mullhaupt

© 2012 C. Bertelsen

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