Fire Use And Dietary Changes

The most remarkable innovation of Homo erectus is undoubtedly the use of extrasomatic energy, in order to accomplish human ends outside the body. The most important source of extrasomatic energy, by far, is fire.24 Hominid hunter-gatherers and scavengers used the somatic energy of fire for the provision of warmth, the clearing of forests, the hunting of game, self-defense, and cooking. It has been estimated that the per capita use of extrasensory energy in the form of fire in early hunter-gatherer societies amounted roughly to the same quantity that flows through human organisms themselves as somatic energy.25

Learning to manage fire represented a remarkable technical and cultural advance for anatomically pre-modern hominids. It brought the possibility of warmth and light and therefore a double extension of the human environment into the cold and the dark. In physical terms, one obvious expression of this was the occupation of caves. Animals could now be driven out and kept out by fire. Technology could move forward: spears could be hardened in fires and cooking became possible, with indigestible substances such as seeds becoming sources of food, and distasteful or bitter plants becoming edible. And cooking must have stimulated attention to the variety and availability of plant life.

Moreover, the use of fire influenced the evolution of reflexive mentality. Around the hearths after dark gathered a community almost certainly aware of itself as a small and meaningful unit against a chaotic and unfriendly background. Language, of whose specific origins we still know little, would have been shaped by a new kind of group intercourse. At some point, fire-bearers and fire specialists appeared - beings of awesome and mysterious importance, on whom depended life and death. They carried and guarded the great liberating tool, and the need to guard it must sometimes have made them masters. Fire began to break up the iron rigidity of night and day and even the discipline of the seasons. It thus carried further the breakdown of the great objective natural rhythms that bound Homo erectus. Hominid behavior, as historian J.M. Roberts notes, now could be less routine and automatic.26 The harnessing of fire was also a prerequisite of big game hunting, another of the significant achievements of Homo erectus. Any meat eating was a great effort as game had to be followed and killed; hominids became dependent upon other species, including the megafauna, as a food source. Organized hunting provided concentrated protein and therefore released meat-eaters from their incessant nibbling on a variety of vegetarian products. Although elephants, giraffes, and buffalo were among the species whose meat was consumed at Olduvai, scholars emphasize that the bones of smaller animals vastly preponderated in the archaeological excavations.27

Still, the ecological impact of anatomically pre-modern hominids such as Homo erectus appears to have remained small. Complex stone tools that appear at the end of the Pleistocene were still unknown to both Homo erectus and early Homo sapiens about 130,000 years ago. There were no bone tools, no ropes to make nets, and no fishhooks. All the early stone tools may have been held directly in the hand; they show no signs of having been mounted on other materials for increased leverage, as we mount steel axe blades on wooden handles.28

The routine argument in the past has been that we have been successful big game hunters for a long time. The supposed evidence comes mainly from three archaeological sites occupied around half a million years ago: a cave at Zhoukoudian near Peking containing bones and tools of Homo erectus ("Peking Man") and bones of many animals, and two non-cave (open-air) sites at Torralba and Ambrona in Spain, with stone tools plus bones of elephants and other large animals. It is usually assumed that the same people who left the tools killed the animals brought their carcasses to the site and ate them there. However, all three sites also have hyena bones andfecalremains, which means hyena could equally well have been the hunters. The bones at the Spanish sites in particular appear to have come from a collection of scavenged, water-washed, trampled carcasses such as one can find around African water holes today, rather than from human hunters' camps. While early humans ate some meat, we do not know how much meat they ate, or whether they got it by hunting or scavenging. Not until much later, around 100,000 years ago, do we have good evidence about human hunting skills, and it's clear that humans even then were still very inefficient big game hunters.29

The archaeological evidence of big game hunting or its effectiveness in Homo erectus and early archaic Homo sapiens populations remains scarce, and, given the absence of elaborate technologies in protohuman species, their impact on other species and ecologies must have been negligible. Nevertheless, this is an epoch of crucial significance with respect to human evolution. Culture and tradition were slowly replacing the importance of genetic mutations and natural selection as the primary source of change among hominids. The group with the best memories of effective adaptive techniques would be favored in the evolutionary process.

Selection also favored those hominid groups whose members had not only good memory but also the increasing power to reflect upon it in language. We know still very little about the history of language. Modern types of language only appeared with anatomically modern humans, long after Homo erectus disappeared.30 What system of communication early hominids possessed may never be known, but one plausible suggestion is that they began by breaking up calls akin to those of other animals into particular sounds capable of rearrangement. This process would create the possibility of different messages and thus constitute the root of grammar. Once more, there can be no separation of social and biological processes. Better vision, an increased physical ability to deal with the world as a set of discrete objects, and the use of tools developed simultaneously with the refinement of linguistic capacities over a long period. Ultimately, these factors combined to contribute to the further extension of abstract conceptualization.

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