Sitting Around The Camp-FireMichael BellOctober 22, 2014
Recently published research in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
suggests that early human use of fire had major social implications as well
as the more commonly described dietary and physiological aspects.
Dr Polly Wiessner, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Utah, analysed
the content of 174 recorded or documented day and nighttime conversations among
Kalahari Bushmen, and says that sitting around a campfire at night enables conversations,
storytelling, and social bonding more effectively than daytime interactions.
"I found this really fascinating difference between conversations by firelight
and conversations in the day," says Wiessner. "The day is harsh, you
see the realities, you see the facial expressions, there's work to be done,
and there's social regulation, and at night people kind of mellow out. The day
is productive time for hunting and gathering and the firelight changed our circadian
rhythm, so we stayed awake much longer and it gave a whole new time and space,
and it was a time when no work could be done," she says. "I think
it had an impact on our cognitive evolution; the stories are told in wonderful
language, perhaps increasing linguistic skills and the imagination . . . when
you're out in the dark by a fire, so many of the stimuli are shut out and your
imagination then takes off."
Weissner notes that fireside conversations often focus on wider social contexts
and relationships among a far-flung network of acquaintances, some of whom may
even be dead.
Humans didn't invent fire, of course; they learned to control it, and to use
it for cooking, heating, manufacture, deterrence of predators. And now it seems
that it may have played a considerable role in the development of language and
social structures. Based on archeological evidence, early human use of fire
is dated to between 400,000 and one million years ago, and is commonly associated
with Homo erectus, although many commentators think that fire came into regular
use only towards the end of that time period, perhaps driven at least partly
by the need to cook food to support the metabolic demands of the enlarging human
300-400,000 years ago is (very approximately) the period during which homo
erectus began its gradual transition into homo sapiens, and a time at which
spoken language was beginning itss rapid development alongside the elaboration
of the human social group. Wiessner's 'wonderful language' wouldn't yet exist,
but it's not hard to imagine that firelight would have played a considerable
role in the crucible of linguistic and societal development.