Opinion Fossil-furtling boffins have announced that the human race was burning things - and irresponsibly releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere - fully a million years ago, some 300,000 years earlier than had been thought.
"Human ancestors as early as Homo erectus may have begun using fire as part of their way of life," enthuses anthropologist Michael Chazan, co-leader of a team which discovered unfeasibly ancient traces of wood ash at the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa.
The massive Wonderwerk is located near the edge of the Kalahari desert, and was already known to the boffinry community as having been extensively occupied by prehistoric humans and pre-humans. Fresh sampling and analysis of sediments from the cave revealed plant ashes and burned bone fragments, both of which - according to the scientists - appear to have been burned on site rather than washed or blown into the cave. The researchers also found surface discolorations which they say indicate burning.
"The control of fire would have been a major turning point in human evolution," says Chazan. "The impact of cooking food is well documented, but the impact of control over fire would have touched all elements of human society. Socializing around a camp fire might actually be an essential aspect of what makes us human."
Chazan and his colleagues' research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. ®
For most of prehistory, our natural human penchant for burning things didn't have a major impact as there were not that many people about and the plants we burned would tend to be replaced by others, so drawing the emitted CO2 back out of the atmosphere. But then tools and farming came along, where we would cut down (and then burn or decompose) carbon-dense forests and replace them with comparatively minimalist crops or grazing (and then sometimes with accidental dust bowls, deserts etc).
Funnily enough it was at around this point that prehistory ended as very small numbers among the human race acquired enough spare time and resources to start writing things down. Occasionally there were hints that we might start burning things not just for heat or to get rid of them but to generate other forms of energy - but usually these very disturbing and dangerous ideas went away, and generally to get these other forms of energy we would use windmills or water wheels, or muscle power.
Then, disaster, as annoying British people worked out ways to turn burning fuel into useful energy wholesale. We had already started digging up fossilised plants to supplement our supplies of ordinary trees etc, and this trend accelerated hugely. In just a couple of hundred years, significant sections of the human race have acquired enough spare time and resources that just about everyone - not just the wealthy and specialist classes - can write things down and read them.
Many people feel that reading, writing, and other such non-food-gathering, energy-related activities are a big part of what make us human - like socialising round the old camp fire. However all this has led to a lot more CO2 being emitted, which some say means we should go back to windmills and waterwheels: though nobody is openly advocating a return to universal mass illiteracy.