OF FIRE AND ICE: THE REAL "GAME" THAT CHANGED THE HUMAN PAST
There has continued to be an explosion in recent years of the highly popular and entertaining “Fantasy Literature” genre. These stories captivate us about speculative interpretations of our more recent and even deeper human past, as well as our more uncertain future. But they have often obscured the equally dramatic if somewhat less exciting actual events that have brought us to our unprecedented cultural present. When this writer began the PEOPLE OF THE STONE saga more than ten years ago, which was first set at the end of the last Ice Age, I had no idea I was working in what would become one of the most fertile timeframes for fantasy writers of many stripes. As an anthropologist and archaeologist, however, I was well aware that this timeframe was one of the most significant turning points in human cultural evolution around the globe long before I became a writer. The continued growth of the alternative reality fantasy writing genre, as well as the success of my first two books in particular, The Stone Breakers and Voices Upon the Wind, which I classify as anthropological novels set in this time period, has led some readers to blur the lines about just what we know for certain about significant events of our deep human past and what we do not.
As a result, I have been giving much thought to writing a short article attempting to place a more simplified context on what we have come to know about how our human ancestors arrived at and then interacted with the unique environments which have subsequently played such an important part in who we are and how we first became the unique species we have become. In order to do this I have decided to borrow a page from one of the more popular Fantasy sagas and concentrate on two of the most significant and elemental factors in our entire journey as a species from where we began to where we have arrived. Fire was the essential innovation in the human past, without which we never could have evolved either physically or socially into the species we have become. We don’t often view it as more than an important tool to possess at the right time, but it is far more critical in so many ways than most of us have ever imagined. Ice, on the other hand, was the single most significant ecological factor in how the environment acted upon us at the critical time to force those physical and social adaptations fire had allowed us to experiment with to lead our species in the new direction it was to take. It has been a truly amazing, even serendipitous at times, journey and may be far more dramatic than any imaginary one that even the most gifted fantasy writer could conjure.
Fire: The tool that made us who we are
When we think about how Fire changed us as early humans it is easy to see the obvious things that acquiring such an essential “tool” did for our species. Fire came to us at a time when our ancestors were still struggling with what to do with this new walking upright posture and the sudden, if then only slight, increase in our primate brain and the possibilities both these new adaptations had opened to us. Sure, we know that learning to control fire gave us warmth, security at night from dangerous predators, and the ability to cook the meat we had previously scavenged, which enabled us to become primary hunters ourselves and changed our diets dramatically forever. Meat eating, we have learned, led to more protein to feed the growth of our brains and gave us the need for more mobility to explore new environments, as we could carry fire with us as explorers. Bigger brains gave us—well, we all know the story of all that, and I don’t want to take the space here to get into that on a more detailed scope. I do, however, want to take a more specific look at some of the finer points of our evolution that would most likely not have occurred, at least when they did, if fire had not come into our lives, especially at the critical moment that it did. Let’s begin with some of the more subtle yet essential changes to the new bodies our species was experimenting with when our early ancestors first learned how to use the gift of fire they had observed—even feared—but never had the ability to control before.
How Fire Changed Our Bodies and What It Meant
We take for granted our ability to have much of our food cooked without giving much thought to what we would be like without this critical tool at our disposal. Even the most dedicated meat eaters among us would, I doubt, never choose to have their meat served raw to them when asked how they like their steaks done. It is not just a matter of taste, but as much a matter of necessity that we cook our food, especially the red meats of which we as a species have become so fond. (Just try chewing a piece of raw beef sometime and see how quickly your jaw starts to hurt from the length of time it takes you to reduce that lump in your mouth to something you can swallow without choking on it!) Paleo-anthropologists believe that the ability to control fire first entered our evolution sometime around one to one and a half million years ago. This was about the time that the species Homo ergaster and Homo erectus were simultaneously emerging in Africa and Asia respectively. The human brain was in the process of taking its first really great leap forward, not coincidentally because we had shifted to a more meat protein-based diet. There can be little doubt that cooking that meat gave us the impetus to eat more meat and thus place demands on our growing brains for more useful and functional adaptations we could use to improve ourselves both physically and socially in order to accommodate our growing abilities as hunters. Let’s look briefly at some of these more specific changes the use of Fire would most certainly have initiated or initially helped to reach their full adaptation mode.
Fire and Bones: One Thing Leads to Another
The story of Evolution is one of how seemingly insignificant mutations sometimes occur and then set off a chain reaction of adaptations that can lead a species in a completely new direction—if the environmental or other “outside” challenges that species faces are radical enough to require such change. Few species have ever enjoyed so many of these chain reactions in such short periods of time as has our own. In an above passage, for example, I referred to how the chewing of cooked meat probably set off one of these critical chains of evolutionary events in our own skulls.
As our ancestors began to enjoy the benefits of cooking their food they quickly would have lost the need for the heavy jaws and large, grinding teeth required for that type of chewing. Any reduction in the size of the jaw and teeth would also have resulted in the loss of the need for the heavy jaw muscles and, equally important, the boney attachments for those muscles at other points on the skull (heavy orbital brows, re-enforced crests, etc. (Recall how much your jaw starts to hurt when you have to chew an undercooked piece of meat or even a raw carrot.) More importantly, the loss of these heavy muscles and their boney attachments would soon have erased the need for such thick skull bones. Individuals suddenly born with thinner bones would eventually have allowed the brain cases to rapidly expand to take advantage of the increased amounts of consumed protein a developing brain sought. Also, a lighter skull could be centrally positioned with more balance on the top of the spinal column. Faces could be flattened out as the dental arches took on a more modern flattened “U” shape instead of the longer squared “V” shape the larger teeth required, again leading to the expansion of the thinner frontal bones and the further development of the critical cognitive part of the brain, which would have expanded with it. In short, more of the skull could, for the first time, be devoted to an expanding brain case instead of the jaw and the chewing muscle attachments the usual primate diet required. One need only look at gorilla and even chimp jaws to see the effect of their coarse diet on braincases.
Secondarily, as we had already become a bipedal species, cooking food would have had another important effect on our skeletons. Gorillas and chimps primarily consume a diet of heavy and raw vegetable fibers (although we now know chimps will eat and even pursue meat when available, just as our own ancestors did). The simple processing of a heavy, raw diet of bulk foods requires two things that the cooking of food allowed our ancestors to move beyond—with important effects. The main primate diet requires a much longer intestine, especially the large one, to process the heavy, fibrous foods that make up the main diet of most primates, including our earliest ancestors. This results in a large gut that must be suspended and supported in front of a curved spine, also supported by four limbs most of the time. Secondarily, the processing of these foods requires a great deal of energy, and since it is a lower protein diet there is little of that necessary substance left over for use on a larger brain or even extended periods of mobility. Most primates tend to forage and then rest for long periods while their expanded guts process and extract the necessary nutrition from the raw foods they have eaten.
The cooking of food goes a long way toward starting that processing, thus negating the need for such a long and large gut, and the stooped over, knuckled-walking apparatus to support it on the animal’s heavy body. Additionally, cooking the meat allows for even more of it to be consumed, which produces the excess protein the expanding brain relied upon. Further, a more upright posture that resulted from the shorter gut allowed the species to begin to “grow tall” with longer legs and shorter arms than ever before. One of the more unexpected facts that occurred with the discovery of the famous “Turkana Boy” skeleton found late in the last century in Africa and dated to over one and a half million years was the unexpected height the adult would have attained—nearly a modern average and much greater that earlier hominid primates in our direct family line. This find dates to the same broad period when our debates about the first ability to control fire are centered upon. Cooking our food not only allowed the skull to develop the larger brain we could now provide protein for; but it allowed us to develop a longer stride to cover more ground between much shorter rest periods and thus explore ever farther beyond our previously existing horizons. We could also experiment now for the first time with new foods those explorations might have encountered, foods like protein-rich raw beans and other formerly toxic plants we could not benefit from until cooking them made them both digestible and safe for us to eat. Whole new environments would quickly have become open to exploration and occupation. In short, “the world became our oyster”, and, indeed, we set out to explore and occupy it in rapid order.
FIRE AS A SOCIAL “TOOL” AND ITS IMPLICATIONS
We are all familiar with the more obvious benefits our ancestors would have immediately accrued with the use of Fire as an important social and cultural acquisition. The security from predators, warmth for marginal and new environments, the ability to extend the day and sit around the camp fire to plan the next day’s activities, develop closer social and personal ties, etc. But what we often lose sight of in this last scenario is how difficult it would be to develop those ties or do that planning without the ability to converse and develop something new to primates—spoken, symbolic language. Of course, we had the bigger brain forming with the newer cognitive areas; but what good would that have been if we couldn’t speak.
Paleoanthropologists have tracked the movement of the voice box (larynx) upward in the windpipe as reflected in the shape and movements in the positioning of the skull on the spinal column. Most researchers believe the ability to articulate a variety of sounds emerges in this same one to one and a half million year timeframe. Many point out that this is no coincidence, but is also a by-product of our ability to cook and chew our food more thoroughly before swallowing it. They point out that until this happened our larynx would have had to remain positioned lower in the throat to avoid causing choking when large, only partially chewed pieces of meat in particular were swallowed. (Again, imagine your own reaction when you swallow a piece of something you have not sufficiently “chewed down” to allow for easier swallowing.) As our diet softened and our jaws and teeth reduced in size, this allowed our soft palate to develop as a sounding board for our nasal passage. Our “voice” finally came to us with all the social implications that then burst onto the human scene with what is no doubt the single most important “social” invention and tool our species ever developed—the ability to create and use in such a vast number of ways the spoken language. Without Fire we do not speak, and if we do not speak and communicate verbally and symbolically, we are just another primate species, one that happens to walk on two feet.
ICE: IT GAVE US MORE THAN JUST COLD DRINKS
We are all children of the Ice. Our species evolved into what we are from the more primitive forms that gave rise to us during the past two million years in the main. That is the period of the Pleistocene, the epoch of the great advances and retreats of the northern hemisphere ice sheets, and the consequential environmental changes they spawned in places like east and south Africa where our species emerged in reaction to these vast and rapid ecological events to eventually be able to spread across the planet. We often associate the Ice Age with the last great appearance of the ice walls in Eurasia and North America, where modern humans adapted to and initiated many of the cultural forms we see in direct lines with our own modern ones. But we owe much more to the ages of the Ice, especially our species almost unique ability to adapt both physically and, then through those changes we looked at above, more socially to cope with the rapid and dramatic environmental shifts during this time that frequently sent other large, less adaptive species into extinction.
We know about the obvious physical changes brought into our species by those early modern ancestors who found their way to the coldest climates in which they could sustain themselves as they pursued the incredible range of large prey species that had already adapted so well to the cold climates. We know that skin colors got lighter to absorb more vitamin D from the scanter sun’s rays. Noses got longer and more pronounced to warm the air we breathed in before it reached our lungs. Hair covering on our bodies returned where it had mostly disappeared in the hotter climates within which we had been evolving for over a million years. The Ice Ages even gave rise to entire new experiments within our species, which branched off for a time and adapted unique forms to cope with living exclusively in the colder zones we had come to occupy. The squatter bodied, large brained, and heavily boned Neanderthals coexisted with our Homo sapiens ancestors when they first arrived over a hundred thousand years ago into the same cold regions and competed side by side until they were apparently absorbed into our own rapidly growing species—or so DNA evidence now suggests.
Our more gracile and diversely brained ancestors brought new skills, tools, and social abilities with them, which allowed them to live in close proximity with the Ice and then reap the rewards of being in such close contact with the endless herds of protein-on-the-hoof food they had never enjoyed in such abundance before. They could make tailored clothing, device-propelled hunting weapons, and more importantly their more evolved brains could utilize the fireside socializing brought on by the extended periods of darkness they encountered in ways that led to the artistic explosion, as well as other technological innovations that brought on the more rapid development of the human cultural and institutional changes that led us to where we have come today. The heat of Africa may have given impetus to the creation of our species; but the cold of the great Ice Plains of the northern hemisphere in the last one hundred thousand years certainly presented the opportunity for our new brains to rapidly respond to answer the many new challenges and opportunities living next to the Ice threw at us. Yes, we are children of the Ice, but children who brought their Fire with them and used the brain and bodies that essential elemental force had given us to make the rapid adaptations, which no other species before, or since, could ever have done.
In the first two books of The People of the Stone saga, I have often been asked by readers about how the concept of the “fire circle” seemed to be the central organizational theme of the stories and the people who inhabit those pages. It is my attempt to inform the reader, without the heavy overburden of facts such as I have just laid out in this essay, of the critical element in our more recent human past that both the Fire and the Ice played in who they were—and who we are as well. I will close by quoting the very first line of The Stone Breakers, the first novel in the saga, which gave birth to the entire six part series. No better summary could be written here, and I hope it will inspire even more readers to introduce themselves to this important series of stories, which have entertained and informed so many loyal readers already.
“The great ice wall stood glistening white where the morning sunlight penetrated the last, lingering mists of the new dawn.” Indeed, it was a “new dawn” for humanity—one whose effects we must not forget our resilient species is still in the process of adapting within to cope with an ever uncertain future. Perhaps, the Ice will return, or perhaps our ability to change the planet’s climatic “rules” will forestall such an event. We cannot know for certain at this critical point in time. We can only hope the bodies and brains our ancestors, who first adapted so well to those changing climates, gave us will continue to adapt and serve us as well into that uncertain future.
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