Monday, June 06, 2016

Humans and Fire

It had been conventional wisdom that the origin of bipedality occurred in a forest/fringe environment and that a move to the savannah during the dry-out at the end of the Pliocene accelerated the evolution of humans.  That was thrown into turmoil when it was discovered that Ardipithecus ramidus possessed facultative bipedal characteristics at 4.4 million years but lived in an entirely forested environment.

Now, it seems, the savannah is seen as playing a different role in human evolution.  Charles Q. Choi, of Scientific American writes:
A longtime theory holds that early humans discovered how to use fire accidentally—perhaps while making stone tools they found that striking rocks against each other could generate sparks, and then gradually learned fire had many uses.

The problem with such serendipity-based explanations is that they "raise more questions than they answer," says evolutionary anthropologist Christopher Parker at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. For example, these theories do not address when or where the discovery might have occurred, why it did not happen earlier or why other animals that use stone tools—chimpanzees, capuchin monkeys, crab-eating macaques and sea otters are known to do so—did not also develop fire use, Parker notes.

Parker and his colleagues suggest in a study published in the April Evolutionary Anthropology that humans developed fire use as a natural response to environmental changes. Previous research found that roughly 3.6 million to 1.4 million years ago—as the genus Homo emerged in Africa—the continent regularly experienced bouts of aridity, causing forests to shrink and dry grasslands to spread. Earlier studies suggested these climate shifts may have driven humanity’s ancestors away from a life climbing trees and toward one of walking upright on the ground, Parker says.
Yes, but there have been, as alluded to above, issues with these previous studies. If bipedality originated in the forest, as a response to who-knows-what, then they already possessed it when the drying out began. But this is not the crux of Parker's research:
Parker and his colleagues suggest in the new study that our ancestors not only grew accustomed to fire but learned to exploit it as a naturally occurring resource. This adaptation, called pyrophilia, may have set the stage for more active and deliberate human use of fire.

The research team's models suggest early humans benefited from wildfires in a number of ways: The blazes would have made it easier to find food, much as Martu Aboriginal women in Australia still rely on fire to clear brush for more efficient hunting. The models also indicate that early humans might have combed the charred remains of wildfires to dine on animals, seeds, nuts and tubers cooked in the flames—benefitting from a chemical process that not only makes many foods easier to digest but kills germs and neutralizes some toxins.
This has not been proposed before and it will be interesting to see if more evidence of this is found. Read the whole thing.

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