Far from being hardwired to flee fire, some animals use it to their own ends, helping us understand our own pyrocognition
Ivo Jacobs is a cognitive zoologist at Lund University in Sweden. He investigates the origins of pyrocognition and the evolution of cognition in primates, corvids, palaeognaths, and alligators.
Edited by Sally Davies
In the beginning, there was no fire. People were cold, lean and hungry. Like baboons, they gathered food and ate it raw. But one day, a group of children began playing with arrows by twirling them against a log, and were surprised to find that the tips became hot and smoke appeared. Sparks jumped and landed on the dry grass nearby, making it smoulder. The kids added more grass to the flames and, as the bonfire grew, it began to whip the air, making a wo-wo-wo-wo sound like a whirlwind. The elders arrived and became angry, because this magic had consumed all the grass and trees. In their hunger, the villagers tried eating the charred bananas left in the ashes – and were surprised to find how sweet they were. People began making fire deliberately to toast bananas, with the same delightful result. Visitors to the region wondered why the food here tasted so sweet, and were told they could buy the secret in exchange for a goat.
This is the story of how all lands learned to use wowo, according to the Chaga people of eastern Africa. Origin stories about fire from around the world involve foragers discovering the hidden spirit of fire in trees, heroes transforming into animals to trick selfish fire-keepers, or Promethean thieves stealing fire from deities. The Chaga myth is more plausible, capturing the transformative role of fire in human evolution and culture. The earliest evidence for human use of fire dates back to eastern Africa 1.5 million years ago, long before the Chaga say that people cultivated bananas and domesticated goats. Wildfires would have been a frequent occurrence for these hominins, a group that encompasses all species in our lineage closer to us than chimpanzees. Indeed, whoever and whenever and wherever they were, the people that first controlled fire were probably already accustomed to it consuming the savannah vegetation on its own.
Yet it seems humans weren’t alone in our use of fire. […]