Fires blazed the way for humans to evolve into the species we are today. Scientists suspect that without a control over fire, humans probably would never have developed large brains and the benefits that come along with it.
Around 400,000 years ago, fire started popping up much more frequently in the archaeological record across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Experts consider these fires to be widespread, though sites with evidence are still relatively scarce.
Two isolated sites show earlier humans using fire before 400,000 years ago. For instance, at a site in Israel, dating back about 800,000 years, archaeologists have found hearths, flint and burned wood fragments.
At another site — Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa, scientists found evidence that humans used fire about 1 million years ago. In that cave, they found remnants of burned bone, plants and hearths.
Though Wonderwerk is the earliest site where most experts agree humans used fire, in theory they should have been using it much earlier.
Around 2 million years ago, the gut of the human ancestor Homo erectus began shrinking, suggesting that something such as cooking was making digestion a lot easier. Meanwhile, its brain was growing, which requires a lot of energy.
At sites in Koobi Fora, a region in northern Kenya that’s rich in paleoanthropological remains dating back about 1.6 million years, burned sediment was clustered separately, suggesting that there was one area for maintaining fire and another area where ancient humans spent their time.
Whenever fire use did arise, humans’ ability to capture and control wildfires — or create fires of their own — had massive impacts on the species’ evolution. It probably lengthened life spans, made humans more social by giving them a place to gather around and, along with the invention of clothing, helped them move into colder climates. Using fires also likely increased human cognition.