Homo Sapiens or Homo Igniferens?
We are not simply beings that use energy; we are beings that exist only because we harnessed energy, and our use of energy has shaped our bodies and culture for millions of years.
Editor’s note: This essay is the second in a series that will explore issues in energy literacy and energy policy.
[Fire] provides warmth on cold nights; it is the means by which they prepare their food, for they eat nothing raw save a few fruits… the Andamanese believe it is the possession of fire that makes human beings what they are and distinguishes them from animals. —A. R. Radcliffe-Brown1
When it comes to energy, most discussions focus on narrow specifics: Should we use less oil? Should we use less coal? More nuclear? Wind power? Solar power? Should we use less power altogether? All of these questions are important, of course, but they are too often discussed in the complete absence of context. The bigger picture is that biology and anthropology tell us something very interesting about human beings: We are not simply beings that use energy, we are beings that exist only because we harnessed energy, and our use of energy has shaped our bodies and culture for millions of years.
All known human societies, from the most advanced to the most primitive, rely on the controlled use of fire (or more advanced forms of energy) for cooking, lighting, and protection. And human beings are the only species known to do so (apes taught to smoke cigarettes don’t count). Virtually all of society’s advances in security, food availability, physical comfort, time for study and to practice the arts, and ability to influence the world stem from the direct or indirect use of energy. In a real sense, we might best be identified as homo igniferens: Man who ignites fire.
Anthropologists have long struggled to figure out exactly when primitive human beings first used fire constructively in their lives. For most of human history and prehistory, modern humans and their forebears were largely nomadic and could not build structures that were capable of surviving for hundreds of years, much less thousands or millions. And often, what did get built or occupied for a long period was buried or erased by natural events, such as glaciations, rising sea levels, land subsidence, and so on. The small fires that early humans would likely have used would not have left much for others to find even a few years later, much less a few million. As a result, the further back into the past that scientists try to look, the less likely they are to find permanently occupied areas where humans might have repeatedly built fires.
Despite these limitations, archaeologists and anthropologists have discovered evidence suggesting that ancient humans were fully in control of fire—from its lighting to its maintenance and use—at least 1.5 million years ago.