April 20, 2012
Perhaps the most useful technological advance in the history of humankind is the control and use of fire. I used "fire" often in my laboratory work, although my fires were typically at 1200 °C, quite a bit above the temperature of a static wood fire (~600 °C). It's easy to list some important uses of fire among primitive man.
• Hunting (Using a ground fire to chase big game towards a band of spear throwers; or, over a cliff).
In today's world, every major technological advance invariably leads to other advances, usually quite quickly. That's what makes the long span between the first use of fire and subsequent advances in the human condition so curious. As I summarized in a previous article (Stone-Age Internet, October 27, 2011), technological advancement in these primitive cultures was limited by the diffusion of information.
A simple percolation model shows that a critical population density is required to allow information diffusion throughout a population.[2-3] The use of stone as the sole human tool persisted from about 2.5 million years ago (the Lower Paleolithic) until about 5,000 years ago, possibly because the human population was too small for effective information diffusion before that time. The metallurgy of copper and bronze was developed after the Stone Age, marking the start of the Bronze Age.
There's no question that written language had a major impact on information diffusion. One of the earliest written artifacts is the wonderfully preserved Phaistos Disc, a fired clay disc, about half a foot in diameter, with stamped symbols. This disc is dated to the Minoan Bronze Age, about four thousand years ago.
The Phaistos script has not been deciphered, since it is unlike other languages. It might not be a script at all, but just an array of pictographs that aided in the telling of a story. In any case, verified examples of true script, such as Linear A, appear at about the same time.
Not too far behind the invention of writing is the technological advance of iron smelting, which marked the start of the Iron Age at about 1,200 BC. This is quite a time after the conventional dating of the human use of fire at the transition from the Lower Paleolithic to the Middle Paleolithic, about 300,000 years ago. In fact, the use of fire is considered to be the distinguishing characteristic of this transition.
Possible evidence for the earlier use of fire has been found, but the consensus among archaeologists is that the Lower Paleolithic-Middle Paleolithic transition, 300,000 years ago, marks the start of fire use. Now, a multinational team of archaeologists has unearthed (pun intended) evidence of the human use of fire a million years ago.[4-6] This makes the huge time period between fire use and other technological advances that much larger.
Wonderwerk Cave is an archaeological rich cave in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa. The cave contains a thick deposit of sediment containing Stone Age artifacts and remains in an exceptional state of preservation.
The research team sampled cave sediments and found burned bone fragments and other burnt material. Importantly, these burnt materials appear to have been burned inside the cave, and they were not just washed in. This is important to both the supposed process for burning, fires tended by humans, and dating of the materials. The humans in this case would have been Homo Erectus.
Homo Erectus occupied the cave during the early Acheulean period that occurred about a million years ago. The principal analytical tools used by the research team were microscopy and Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy. The authors write in their article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that this is the earliest evidence for human fire.
• Smoking bees from their hive.
• Campfires and torches to repel predators.
• Using smoke to preserve animal hide and meat.
• Softening tar and pitch to use as an adhesive.
• Wood working (burning cavities into wood for vessels; making spear tips.
• Firing pottery.
• Signal fires.
- Margaret A. McIntyre, "The Cave Boy Of The Age Of Stone," Harrap (London, Not Dated, Certified Public Domain by Archive.org).
- Adam Powell, Stephen Shennan and Mark G. Thomas, "Late Pleistocene Demography and the Appearance of Modern Human Behavior," Science, vol. 324, no. 5932 (June 5, 2009), pp. 1298-1301.
- M.A. Sumour, M.A. Radwan, M.M. Shabat, Ali H. El-Astal, "Statistical physics applied to stone-age civilization," arXiv Preprint Server, October 13, 2011.
- Lewis Page, "ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. - Humans begin artificial CO2 emissions," The Register (UK), April 3, 2012
- Francesco Berna, Paul Goldberg. Liora Kolska Horwitz, James Brink, Sharon Holt, Marion Bamford and Michael Chazan, "Microstratigraphic evidence of in situ fire in the Acheulean strata of Wonderwerk Cave, Northern Cape province, South Africa," Open Access Publication, April 2, 2012, Document No. 1117620109.
- Supporting Information for article in ref. 5.
Permanent Link to this article
Linked Keywords: Technology; humankind; fire; laboratory; Celsius; °C; wood; prehistory; primitive man; hunting; big game; spear; cliff; smoking; bee; hive; campfire; torch; predator; cooking; curing; preserve; animal hide; meat; wood fuel; heating; lighting; tar; pitch; adhesive; wood working; bowl; vessel; pottery; signal fire; human face; jawbone; human tooth; muscles; "The Cave Boy of the Age of Stone"; Margaret A. McIntyre; diffusion of innovation; diffusion of information; percolation theory; percolation model; population density; stone tool; Lower Paleolithic; metallurgy; copper; bronze; Stone Age; Bronze Age; written language; Phaistos Disc; clay; foot; diameter; symbol; Minoan civilization; Minoan; Phaistos Disc; Wikimedia Commons; decipherment; pictogram; pictograph; Linear A; invention of writing; iron smelting; Iron Age; BC; Lower Paleolithic; Middle Paleolithic; Possible evidence for the earlier use of fire; archaeologist; Wonderwerk Cave; cave; Northern Cape Province; South Africa; sediment; artifact; NASA; Homo Erectus; Acheulean period; analytical tool; microscopy; Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy; FTIR; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Latest Books by Dev Gualtieri
Thanks to Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing for his favorable review of Secret Codes!
Blog Article Directory on a Single Page
- Soybean Graphene - March 23, 2017
- Income Inequality and Geometrical Frustration - March 20, 2017
- Wireless Power - March 16, 2017
- Trilobite Sex - March 13, 2017
- Freezing, Outside-In - March 9, 2017
- Ammonia Synthesis - March 6, 2017
- High Altitude Radiation - March 2, 2017
- C.N. Yang - February 27, 2017
- VOC Detection with Nanocrystals - February 23, 2017
- Molecular Fountains - February 20, 2017
- Jet Lag - February 16, 2017
- Highly Flexible Conductors - February 13, 2017
- Graphene Friction - February 9, 2017
- Dynamic Range - February 6, 2017
- Robert Boyle's To-Do List for Science - February 2, 2017
- Nanowire Ink - January 30, 2017
- Random Triangles - January 26, 2017
- Torricelli's law - January 23, 2017
- Magnetic Memory - January 19, 2017
- Graphene Putty - January 16, 2017
- Seahorse Genome - January 12, 2017
- Infinite c - January 9, 2017
- 150 Years of Transatlantic Telegraphy - January 5, 2017
- Cold Work on the Nanoscale - January 2, 2017
- Holidays 2016 - December 22, 2016
- Ballistics - December 19, 2016
- Salted Frogs - December 15, 2016
- Negative Thermal Expansion - December 12, 2016
- Verbal Cues and Stereotypes - December 8, 2016
- Capacitance Sensing - December 5, 2016
- Gallium Nitride Tribology - December 1, 2016
- Lunar Origin - November 27, 2016
- Pumpkin Propagation - November 24, 2016
- Math Anxiety - November 21, 2016
- Borophene - November 17, 2016
- Forced Innovation - November 14, 2016
- Combating Glare - November 10, 2016
- Solar Tilt and Planet Nine - November 7, 2016
- The Proton Size Problem - November 3, 2016
- Coffee Acoustics and Espresso Foam - October 31, 2016
- SnIP - An Inorganic Double Helix - October 27, 2016
- Seymour Papert (1928-2016) - October 24, 2016
- Mapping the Milky Way - October 20, 2016
- Electromagnetic Shielding - October 17, 2016
- The Lunacy of the Cows - October 13, 2016
- Random Coprimes and Pi - October 10, 2016
- James Cronin (1931-2016) - October 6, 2016
- The Ubiquitous Helix - October 3, 2016
- The Five-Second Rule - September 29, 2016
- Resistor Networks - September 26, 2016
- Brown Dwarfs - September 22, 2016
- Intrusion Rheology - September 19, 2016
- Falsifiability - September 15, 2016
- Fifth Force - September 12, 2016
- Renal Crystal Growth - September 8, 2016
- The Normality of Pi - September 5, 2016
- Metering Electrical Power - September 1, 2016
Deep Archive 2006-2008