The Discovery of Fire

The Discovery of Fire

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Fire was undoubtedly one of our earliest conquests of Nature. We do have evidence of hearths in caves dating back to almost a hundred thousand years ago among the Sinanthropus (Peking Man, more than 500,000 years old), as also (much later) in the dwellings of the so-called Neanderthal Man (disappearing about 30,000 years ago), although some have raised serious doubts about the former. In any case, human beings have known how to make and control fire since very ancient times. How this was first accomplished is shrouded in mystery, as indeed are so many other details pertaining to practically every initial giant step in human history. The creation of fire could well have been a chance discovery. Early humans were certainly familiar with the heat of the sun. They must have observed lightning flashes. A powerful lightning could have set a tree or a forest ablaze. The first humans who witnessed this would probably have felt like Samuel Johnson who exclaimed, “No spectacle is nobler than a blaze!” Or, on a hot summer day a dry leaf or twig may have caught fire in the open. Or again, in aimless rubbing or scratching stones, a human being may have generated sparks quite accidentally. It would be interesting to know how this momentous discovery was made. Unfortunately, our ancestors who first produced and handled fire could not and did not leave a journal recording their observations.

Those who first mastered the technique of setting dry sticks on fire must no doubt have felt both fear and a sense of power. With its intangibility and immateriality, fire must have seemed very mysterious to early humans. With its warmth, it served their needs in winter. With its glow, it helped them see things in pitch dark nights. Fire thus enabled humans to conquer darkness which even in our own times, children and some adults continue to dread. Moreover, fire surely must have frightened away nocturnal animals that would otherwise be a threat and danger. Fire also has the strange property of seeming to fall upwards, like nothing else on earth. So it is small wonder that when humans evolved to a stage of culture, fire came to be worshipped and venerated, and was associated with life itself.

The first hymn in the Vedas is an invocation to Agni (Latin ignis: fire). This is the basis of fire being at the center of many Hindu rites and rituals to this day, for fire is eternal as seen in the sun and the stars. But the mystic poet Sri Aurobindo sees in the veneration of fire Gnostic significance also. He says that “Agni in the Veda is always presented in the double aspect of force and light. He (Agni) is the divine power that builds up the worlds, a power which acts always with a perfect knowledge, for it is j‚tavedas, knower of all births, visv‚ni vayun‚ni vidv‚n, it knows all manifestations or phenomena or it possesses all forms and activities of the divine wisdom.” (The Secret of the Veda, p. 61)

All the legends and lore of humanity speak of fire and sparks the same way as the myths and pristine poetry of the Finns or the Hindus do: the one in which Prometheus retrieved fire which had been stolen by the gods is one of the best known. All extant cultures are known to be acquainted with fire. Pacific Islanders, Amerindians, and every culture of the human family developed ways of generating fire. Charles Darwin reported that once he was amazed by the ease with which the inhabitants of Tahiti produced fire with the elements of Nature surrounding them (The Voyage of the Beagle, Ch. 18), while he himself had great difficulty in achieving this. In the eighteenth century Boswell suggested that fire led to cooking and this led to human civilization. Maybe, but some modern environmentalists say that that the discovery of fire led to the burning of trees, resulting in the transformation of some regions which were rich with trees into vast savannahs.

Ovid wrote: “By wind is a fire fostered, and by wind extinguished: a gentle breeze fans the flame, a strong breeze kills it.” (Remediorum Amoris) Like many significant things in life and nature, there is this irony with fire too.