Friday, July 18, 2008

The raw and the cooked

It has been a cold, rainy summer so far, which is about par for the west of Ireland. Which means lots of fires in the fireplace -- Irish peat, Polish coal, and furze from the field -- and lots of hours gazing into the companionable flames.

Humans would appear to be the only fire-using animal. I've heard that cheetahs and hawks will sometimes position themselves to attack animals fleeing from naturally-occurring fires, but this hardly qualifies as "the discovery of fire." Exactly when humans figured out how to retrieve fire ignited by volcanoes or lightning and keep it alive is unknown. The earliest evidence I recall is charred animal bones from the Swartkrans cave in South Africa, dating from about 1.5 million years ago. Perhaps the deliberate use of fire is as good a criteria as any other for defining that moment when hominids can be said to be human. Certainly, as I sit staring dreamily into the dancing flames I am intensely conscious of being conscious.

Once campfires were common for warmth, light and protection it would not have been long before our ancestors discovered that cooked meat tasted good and took less effort to chew. Anthropologists ascribe all sorts of cultural significance to fire. The requirements of tending a fire presumably led to a more settled lifestyle. The hearth was a place for communal life, and therefore for new kinds of communication -- dance, storytelling, and decorative and symbolic arts. In the most imaginative of these flame-lit scenarios, happy bands of early humans sat next to a fire, swapping yarns, cooing to infants, sharpening spears, sharing tidbits of roasted meat, and taking from the hissing, crackling flame, and from the smoke curling heavenward, new ideas about life, death and immortality.

As I sit here musing in front of the hearth, I have a grim little fantasy, for which (as far as I know) not a shred of evidence exists: A little band of hunters of the species Homo erectus come to the cooking cavern where their fire, tended by the weaker members of the band, is protected from wind and rain. On the menu at one time or another is antelope, zebra, warthog, baboon, and -- depending on availability -- an occasional Australopithecus robustus, from whom Homo may have diverged only a million years earlier, roasted to perfection, thereby hastening our smaller, less erect, tool-making cousins toward eventual extinction.