Ancestral Fire Production: Implications for Contemporary Paleo Diets

primal fire productionIn our world, fire is such a basic element that we almost never give it a second thought. You click upon your gas powered kitchen range and instantly a circular blue flame emerges to fry your eggs, boil your water or steam your veggies.

Your summertime barbecue or campfire is lit without a second thought from the cheap butane lighter you bought from the convenience store. If you happen to be a cigarette or pot smoker – who amongst you worries about ignition for your habit – the problem is not fire starting itself, but rather paying for or obtaining tobacco or marijuana.

Such is the way of the western world – virtually all of us do not give a second thought about creating fire. We can all do it at anytime we want with no worry whatsoever.

But what if in our contemporary world we didn’t have a butane lighter, matches or other modern procedures to produce fire?

How could it be done?

Do you know how to start a simple fire without modern technology?

Could you create a simple flame to cook, to smoke or for warmth?

I am not a betting man, but I can almost guarantee you that for even a hundred or a thousand dollars, none of you could start a fire without modern technology, even if your life depended upon it.

The very first friction matches were only invented in 1827 by John Walker2 and the invention of simple butane lighters are even more recent still in the early part of the 20th century. How did humanity create fire before these inventions?

Let’s eventually travel backwards in time and see how fire was created without modern technology, but more importantly, for the Paleo Diet community, let’s examine how the control and production of fire defines the food groups that our ancestors could not have consumed – food groups that have now become arbitrary staples of civilization and which are ironically recommended by governmental and institutional organizations as promoters of good health and well being.

As simple as it seems; knowing, using and producing fire from an evolutionary perspective requires a number of fundamental steps:

  1. Logical identification of the event (fire itself)
  2. Recognition of fire’s benefits
  3. Controlling fire
  4. Producing fire at will4, 15

Virtually all mammals and primates are aware of fire’s dangers and logically flee from it, but none other than our own species identify its potential benefits. The majority of the anthropological community now recognize that fire use by hominids did not appear habitually anywhere in the world except in Europe, sporadically and opportunistically until about 300,000 to 400,000 years ago.9, 11, 14 I quote the most comprehensive recent review of ancient fire use:

“However, surprisingly, evidence for use of fire in the Early and early Middle Pleistocene of Europe is extremely weak. Or, more exactly, it is nonexistent, until ∼300–400 ka.”11

What does this statement mean? It means that Neanderthals living in Europe 300,000 to 400,000 years ago were the first hominids to:

  1. Logically identify fire
  2. Recognize its benefits
  3. Control it

However, the huge caveat here is that they almost certainly did not have the ability to produce fire at will.12, 13 How do we know this? Archaeological excavations of Neanderthal caves during extended cold periods in Europe show a virtual lack of fire use when the climate worsened and became quite frigid.12, 13 Accordingly, Neanderthals were at the mercy of collecting naturally occurring fire and keeping it alive for extended periods.

Clearly, this approach was a “hit and miss” venture at best, as Neanderthals frequently suffered in the bitter cold of their winter caves without fire.12, 13

Controlling Fire vs. Producing Fire

The archaeological record from Europe shows evidence for fire control by about 300,000 to 400,000 years ago, but remember that the ability to control fire is far different than the ability to produce it.9, 11, 14

Naturally occurring fire results from lightening strikes, volcanic eruptions and spontaneous combustion via decaying plant material. Far and away, lightening is responsible for almost all naturally occurring fires.

Hence, before humanity had the ability to produce fire, we were generally limited to collecting and preserving lightening caused fires. Apparently, this strategy was opportunistic and occasional at best, based upon the scarcity of fire in the early fossil record.9, 11, 12-14, 18 Because humanity lacked the knowledge and capacity to produce fire wherever and whenever we desired, then this limitation clearly prevented us from regularly consuming entire categories of plant foods (cereal grains, almost all legumes and most tubers and roots) which are normally inedible without cooking.

The inability of humanity to produce fire therefore represents a crucial “line drawn in the sand” for defining foods and food groups that should or should not be included in contemporary Paleo Diets.

Producing Fire

As simple as it seems, fire production without modern technology is complicated, requires practice, instruction and dedicated skills.2 Alfred Kroeber, a world famous anthropologist from the University of California at Berkeley who studied the last wild Indian (Ishi) in North America in the early 1900s, simply could not light a fire in front of his University anthropology class when attempting to use Ishi’s hand held fire drill.20

Our genus (Homo) first appeared on earth about 2 million years ago. The most current data suggests that the ability to habitually produce fire by our species occurred only as, “a very late phenomenon restricted to the archaeological record of modern humans at the end of the Pleistocene.”14

This evidence based conclusion12-14 is consistent with the sum of the most recent archaeological data and does not support prior propositions of earlier habitual fire production, but rather opportunistic gathering of naturally occurring fire.1, 3, 18, 19

If we look at the emergence of habitual fire production as an exclusive innovation of modern humans, then you can appreciate how recent this technology really is, particularly from an evolutionary time scale.

To put things into a perspective that we can all understand, fire production likely first came into regular play on a 24 hour time clock for all of humanity somewhere between 36 to 48 minutes (75,000 to 100,00 years ago) to midnight.

Think about it – our genus (Homo) has existed for more than 2 million years, yet except for the final throes of our evolutionary period on earth did we ever consume any plant foods (cereal grains, legumes and most tuber and roots) that required cooking to make them edible.

One of the questions you certainly must ask, as have numerous people and professional anthropologists have posed before you is this: why did it take so long and why was it so difficult for humanity to produce fire?

One of Charles Dickens’ most famous quotes, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” sticks in my mind. Good ideas become the “best of times” but only until they surface – before their appearance we must endure the prior status quo with the “worst of times.”

Over the course of our species evolution, human technological innovation has moved at a dreadfully slow pace, primarily because prior accomplishments could not be documented or widely distributed until the advent of writing, the printing press and most recently computers and the internet.

Nevertheless, the invention of fire production was an innovation that seems to have taken the entire world by storm sometime after modern humans evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago and then began to colonize the planet about 60,000 years ago.2, 5-9

So just how did our ancestors do it? How did they invent the ability to produce fire whenever and wherever they wanted? The ethnographic literature of hunter gatherer societies universally shows that they utilized two basic means to generate fire:

  1. Wood on wood friction2, 4, 6-8
  2. Stone on stone percussion or friction using flint and iron bearing stones (pyrite or marcasite)10, 14, 15-17

Archaeological evidence from Europe indicates that production of fire via flint and iron stone percussion was rare or virtually absent in pre-agricultural people throughout Europe.14

Hence, it seems likely that the first Europeans to produce fire may have utilized wood on wood friction techniques to start fires.14 This fire starting procedure (wood on wood friction) likely spread rapidly worldwide, and evidence for fire production via this method appears in Australian2, 4 and North American hunter gatherer societies2, 6-8 as humans colonized these continents and elsewhere.2

Fire starting by wood on wood friction can be accomplished by a number of procedures. The most common method by worldwide hunter gatherers is the fire or hand drill (Figure 1 below).2, 4, 6

Other methods include the bow drill, the pump drill, the fire plow, the fire saw and the spear thrower over shield.2 Although the fire drill appears to be an easy and straightforward technique to produce fire, a number of crucial technological nuances virtually prevent unskilled operators from successfully producing fire,2 as was similarly experienced by Professor Kroeber in front of his anthropology class.20

Skilled hunter gatherers under good conditions can ignite fire in less than a minute with a fire drill, whereas the best modern survivalists can do it in 28 seconds.2

Logic dictates that the very first humans to start a fire via the hand drill method certainly did not preconceive this method in its entirety with the intent of producing fire. Rather fire must have accidentally resulted from an entirely separate operation – drilling to produce holes in objects.

Since the appearance of modern humans in Europe more than 40,000 years ago, the fossil record is replete with drilled items – bone and stone necklaces, bone flutes, wooden grommets, and other items which are perforated with holes either drilled or punched into them. Accordingly, the very first fire ever created by any human from the hand drill method must have unexpectedly occurred with the original goal of drilling a hole into a wooden object with a wooden drilling stick.

I bring this concept up to provide corroborative evidence that Neanderthals nor any other earlier hominid had the ability to habitually produce fire. Until modern humans arrived on the scene, the fossil record is almost completely devoid of drilled objects.

Hence, the technology (drilling) that allowed modern humans to accidentally discover a universal procedure to ignite fire was not part of the technological repertoire of any hominids that came before us.

Nutritional and Dietary Implications of Fire Production

Before I leave this discussion, the most important consequence of when fire production first occurred in our ancestral past is the nutritional “line in the sand” that I alluded to earlier.

As the Paleo Diet becomes more and more popular, its original message has become weakened by so-called experts whose Paleo food recommendations now include legumes, beans, lentils, garbanzo beans, lima beans, green beans, peas, quinoa, chia seeds, amaranth and other foods which are either toxic, indigestible or minimally digestible without cooking.21, 22

Further, these foods contain a variety of antinutrients (phytate, lectins, saponins, protease inhibitors, thaumatin-like proteins, tannins, isoflavones, raffinose oligosaccharides, cyanogenetic glycosides, favism glycosides and others), which in both their uncooked and cooked states impair gut health, immune and hormonal function while impairing nutrient absorption.21, 22

Our species has no nutritional requirement for cereal grains, legumes or tubers. We can obtain all required human vitamins and minerals from fresh vegetables, fruits, meats, fish, shellfish, seafood, eggs and nuts.

The archaeological evidence produces a clear factual mandate that no hominids had the ability to habitually produce fire until very recent evolutionary times.11-14

Accordingly, plant foods that required the production of fire and cooking for their digestion and assimilation were not part of our original menu. Incorporation of these foods into contemporary diets is now known to reduce the nutrient density (vitamins and minerals of the 13 nutrients most lacking in the US diet)23, 24 while simultaneously promoting chronic diseases of western civilization.24, 25

The invention of fire was a very good thing. It changed our lives forever.

The important message here for the 21st century Paleo Diet movement is to leave the worst of our ancestral world behind us (living in cold caves, etc.) and to adopt the best of their world (fresh living foods, regular exercise and sunlight exposure).


Loren Cordain, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus


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