Any outdoor enthusiast with real or online only experience will tell you that fire is one of the most important aspects to surviving in the wildness. Fire provides warmth, light, and allows you to cook food or boil water. Other important aspects was the creation of forges, utilizing fire to refine the rare metals which would be used to improve the tools we use. At the current point of human history we have all but mastered the use of fire, using different chemicals or gasses to heat our homes, make hot water, and energy to power entire cities. However, what was fire like for early humans, and just how long of a storied history do we have with it?
While it’s difficult to determine exactly when humans started to use fire, we can look to the centuries of archaeological evidence from ancient human and human ancestor settlements to paint a rough timeline of our relationship with fire. I’m no archaeologist, but history has always interested me and learning just how far we’ve come allows you to appreciate the tools you now have at your disposal that much more. Let’s jump back 1 million years to the Fertile Crescent on the continent of Africa. Here, the first humans, Homo Erectus, are thought to have harvested fire from naturally occurring sources, such as lightning strikes or lava flows. This is evidenced by other ancient stories such as the Greek myth of Prometheus, who defied the Gods and delivered fire to humankind, an act that is symbolized every 4 years through the lighting of the Olympic Torch. It was a common story for ancient humans that fire was a luxury and not something you could simply create. It needed to be harvested, and returning it safely was a trial on its own, those who were able to do so regarded as Heroes.
How can I jump from 1 million years to Greek mythology you might ask? Well, that’s due to the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of years that pass before humans discover fire, to discovering how to start their own fires. Stories like Prometheus are ancient tales, told and retold around the campfires of ancient peoples over centuries, evolving eventually to the epics we have today. Seriously – the first hard evidence of humans utilizing fire starting tools comes from roughly 200,000 years ago, leaving a significant gap for when a majority of human civilizations were harvesting fire. Once you had it, keeping it alive was the most important thing, as if they ever fully went out, you would be without a fire until the next naturally occurring one.
That being said, it’s very likely that some civilizations or settlements discovered fire-starting methods even earlier than 200,000 years ago. Percussion methods, such as flint or pyrite to generate a spark, likely came first. As stone tools were common, striking flint or pyrite by accident seems likely for many of the areas that early humans settled, allowing them to carry a piece to generate a fire-starting spark wherever it might be needed. Another overlooked tidbit of fire is its ability to cook food – something no other species had ever done prior to early humans. Eating cooked foods burns less calories than consuming raw foods, and it’s widely believed that cooking our meats is what allowed our brains to grow over the centuries. The growth of our available intelligence over that time period is what would eventually allow for the invention of the firestarting tools we know and rely on today.
Next came friction methods, tools such as hand drills, bows or fire saws began to see more frequent use. What’s most interesting is that this is long after early humans spread out across the world, humans now appearing entirely across the globe. There is evidence of Australian Aboriginals using a hand drill 40,000 years ago, along with similar designs from Chinese bamboo fire drills, dating upwards of 100,000 years ago. Now you might think that after that, technology may have progressed quickly. Unfortunately that was not to be the case, with only improvements to percussion or friction methods being created. Utilizing an iron striker with flint created a stronger, healthier spark as compared to stone. Professionally crafted hand drills or bow kits became more common as settlements grew in size and populations swelled to encourage trading. The tinderbox became the common kit, containing a firesteel, flint, and usable tinder, creating the first commercial fire starting kits. Back then though, travelling to another country and expecting posh accommodations was so unrealistic you couldn’t even dream of it, so they were absolutely a survival necessity for the intrepid explorer.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that matches would be invented, providing an all-in-one solution to the fire starting problem. A chemically treated tip on a small wooden stick, the tip ignites when struck on a coarse surface, providing instant fire. While it seems trivial today to think about what you might need to start a fire, consider that it took humankind roughly 1 MILLION years to invent the match – something we look at today as primitive. Following the invention of the match would be the classic Ferro Rods that are apart of any fire kit today, a modern improvement of the flint and steel combination of the tinder boxes of old. Then of course came the butane lighter, providing not just instant, but continuous fire, able to light hundreds of camp fires between refills. The lighter did not go through a great many improvements, actually still relying on a percussion method to generate a spark to ignite the butane gas within. While there’s more ways to start a fire than you can probably count now, it’s always great to look back on how we got to where we are today. While the traditional fire starting methods are tried and true with centuries of evidence to support it, the capabilities of the modern bushcrafter continue to increase as technology expands. If you’re looking for the most modern way for ensure you always have the ability to start a life-saving fire, our electric lighters and solar powerbank options are the most recent advancements in Fire Starting technologies.