Before people invented the wheel, went to space, or launched the internet, they first discovered how to harness fire. National Geographic’s new series Origins, premiering Monday, March 6 at 9/8c, reveals how this landmark moment in human history led to countless more milestones. For better or for worse, here are just a handful of ways fire has shaped (and is still shaping) the destiny of humanity.
1. IT ALLOWED HUMANS TO MIGRATE.
Permanent human communities can be found on six of the Earth’s seven continents, and that’s partly thanks to fire. For early humans, harnessing fire was more of a way to cook food than provide heat. Research has shown that our hominid ancestors first learned to harness natural fires almost 1 million years ago, but they only started consistently managing and maintaining fires of their own in hearths about 400,000 years back. Sixty to seventy thousand years ago, around the same time humans left Africa and started migrating to new continents, humans began using tools to make fires. In addition to acting as a heat source, fire would have also allowed migrating humans to protect themselves from predators and extend the shelf life of their food supplies.
2. IT HELPED OUR BRAINS GROW.
Never underestimate the importance of knowing how to cook. Some scientists have argued that humans would have never developed the big brains that set us apart from other primates without this skill.
Cooking food doesn’t just make it tastier and safer to eat—it also makes it easier to chew and digest. After finding a way to make meat go down easier, early humans were able to spend less time gnawing away on tough pieces of uncooked gristle, and a lot of those extra calories went to nourishing their growing brains, according to a team of Brazilian neuroscientists. Even though the brain only accounts for 2 percent of our body mass, it uses up 20 percent of the calories we burn. So the next time you find yourself craving barbecue, you can blame your head as well as your stomach.
3. IT SPAWNED TUBERCULOSIS.
The destructive nature of fire calls to mind blazing forests and burning buildings, but one of fire’s most devastating impacts on humanity may have less dramatic origins. At least that’s according to one group of Australian biologists who trace the birth of tuberculous back to smoke. Their research suggests that the disease developed from a line of microbes called mycobacteria. Human lungs weakened by particulate smoke are more susceptible to infection from the microbes, and groups of human hosts (like you usually find around fires) might have allowed it to spread and grow rapidly into the pathogen we know today. Tuberculous is still the most deadly infectious disease on Earth, claiming 1.8 million lives a year.
4. IT WAS USED AS AN AGRICULTURAL TOOL.
Early humans learned that fire could be used as a tool to cultivate food even before planting seeds in the ground. By chopping down patches of trees and igniting “controlled burns” to get rid of the stumps, farmers were left with clearings of nutrient-rich ash and soil for growing crops. The power to carve out fields with fire helped fuel the rise of agriculture. This same method was also used by hunter-gatherers to create attractive environments for game animals.
5. IT HELPED ERADICATE THE GREAT PLAGUE.
London was already intimately familiar with tragedy when a fire swept through town in 1666. The bubonic plague had arrived in the city the year before and claimed the lives of 15 percent of its residents in one summer. After the Great Fire of London tore through 436 acres of real estate in a few days, the devastation had a surprising side effect: It cleansed the area of many of its flea-ridden rats which carried the disease. The epidemic faded away from London that same year.
6. IT MADE PASTEURIZATION POSSIBLE.
Humans had been cooking food for thousands of years when Louis Pasteur discovered that controlled heat could also be used to make beverages safer to drink. In the 19th century, the French chemist discovered that heating up wine to a precise temperature for a certain amount of time could kill harmful bacteria without changing its flavor. The process was also used to eliminate harmful organisms in beer, vinegar, and eventually milk (once a common carrier of tuberculosis).
7. A NEW TYPE OF FIRE COULD HELP CLEAN OIL SPILLS.
While preventing oil spills all together is ideal, it’s important to be able to clean them up quickly in case they do happen. In 2016, a group of scientists announced they had discovered a new type of fire that does just that. Unstable fire whirls occur in nature, but a so-called “blue whirl” created in a lab burns cleanly and more predictably. Its blue color indicates “complete combustion” which leaves behind little or no soot. If reproduced on a larger scale, the new type of fire would burn oil spills more efficiently while leaving behind less pollutants than traditional a fire. This could save ecosystems from major devastation if such a disaster were to occur in the future.