The Muse of Fire

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention…
 
–William Shakespeare

I’ve been thinking a lot about fire lately.

Kanzi, a bonobo, can build a campfire from scratch and roast marshmallows over it, just like a human. What you may not know, is that most great apes, don’t learn by watching someone demonstrate a skill–except for humans–that’s how we learn most of our knowledge (the other part through reading, of course). Kanzi has shown a remarkable ability to do something after it’s been demonstrated to him, just like a human would. And so he builds campfires to cook his food.

The earliest remnants of cooking fires have been found in the Southern tip of South Africa and date back to a million years ago. They were probably made by our ancestors Homo ergaster or the “working man”. Homo ergaster gave rise to many of the hominids to come including Homo heidelbergensis in Europe, the father of Homo neanderthalensis– the Neaderthals and Homo sapiens– we humans.

Like Kanzi, Homo ergaster knew how to make a fire but there were several other traits that started them on their way to becoming human. Males didn’t compete for every female, which means they probably formed families instead. Their brains were bigger. They had vocal cords similar to the ones we still have. They used tools and probably hunted for their food.

We don’t know if Homo ergaster sang, made art or told stories, but we know their descendants did.

And we’re still bewildered and bewitched by fire. It is that magical gift from the heavens that we somehow learned to harness and keep–proof that the universe wanted us warm and gathered together so that we could share our experiences and learn from them.

So that we could tell each other stories.

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