Sitting Around The Camp-Fire

Michael Bell
October 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 hunter-gatherer brain.

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.



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