Fire power

In his book Against The Grain, James C Scott discusses the use of fire as a tool to manage the environment. Through clearing rain forest with fire, prehistoric hominids discovered that the burnt areas recovered rapidly, becoming more attractive to the species that were hunted for food. Attracted by tender green shoots and lush grass, grazing herbivores were followed by their carnivorous predators, much to the satisfaction of the hunter gatherers.

By creating productive oases of harvestable food, the hominids no longer needed to travel so far to find food. The pressing need to move on and start looking for fresh sources of food started to lose its urgency. But Scott has a more intriguing discovery to relate.

The closest relative to hominids is the chimpanzee, which has a significant difference, despite sharing almost all its genetic traits with humans. The chimp’s digestive system is elaborate and robust, allowing it to digest cellulose and tough vegetation. This heavy duty digestive function is absent in homo sapiens, Scott argues, because the use of fire for cooking food makes it easier to digest. It is as though homo sapiens has externalised the digestive functions by cooking on fires.

Having made the transition to a lighter, swifter digestive system, humanity is not going to reverse the process any time soon. Humanity is committed to maintaining a pattern of routine burning in the rain forest, just to carry on eating. We are now dependent on the restraints that we took on willingly millennia previously and are irrevocably committed to cooking and eating food, ranging over shorter distances than before. The domestication that came with fire changed humanity’s future development.

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