Can you imagine camping without campfires & grilled meat? No, me neither. Like, what’s the point of packing the tent & all the gear if there’s no flickering in the firepit as that lovely star of ours sinks flaming into the Pacific? (or, often rather, sinks obscured by a cool blanket of coastal fog)… Well, either way, camping = campfire for this girl scout.
Over Labor Day weekend in Los Padres National Forest @ our fav campground Plaskett Creek – Plan B after the Strawberry Music Festival was cancelled due to the Rim Fire – there was no potable water because the well was dry (drought), the bathrooms were closed so we had to use porta-potties (drought, but hey, I can manage), &, as lamented, no fires were allowed, not even grills (yeah you guess it: drought). This lifelong camper can survive without roasted sugar puffs & flush toilets, but I was totally disoriented without those cherished late evening flames.
These days its all electricity & natural gas…light & heat & even human communication. But it wasn’t so long ago that the campfire was all we had. To warm us up. To tell tales by. To keep the predators away. To cook with & render meat more edible, which fed our bigger brains. Human primate life evolved around the homefire. I agree, it’s a plausible, warm & cuddly scenario.
The camper in me really loves this story. The complicated thing about fire though is that it’s hard to find the evidence. For good reason, scientists love evidence – the more indisputable, the better. Even then, they love to argue about what the evidence means. This is one of those hot topics: when did hominins start using fire? Accepted evidence now points to about 800 kya, but others say it was much earlier, maybe even a million years earlier.
Part of the evidence problem is ashes…they melt away into the soil without a trace. Another problem is sea level change…for the past 3 or so million years (a key period in human evolution), sea levels have been lower than current levels for about 95% of the time. Ergo, since there’s ample evidence that our ancestors frequently lived & migrated along coastlines, evidence of fire (& lot of other stuff) is probably underwater.
Also, ‘cooking’ food doesn’t necessarily mean using fire. It’s not implausible that methods for changing the physical & chemical composition of food – thereby increasing its digestibility, another key aspect of human evolution – arose due to an intent to hang onto some of it to eat later. Before the modern day luxury of refrigerators, there’s evidence that for a long time food was preserved by drying; fermenting & pickling via salt &/or sugar, acids, & oil; pounding & grinding; & burial in the ground.
& finally, just sayin’ it again: the protein that our ancestors arguably needed to power their expanding brain could have been derived in good measure from seafood, not only animals. We have ample evidence of scavenging meat on the savanna because that evidence is not (yet) underwater. Recent discoveries of seashell middens offer new evidence of the seafood theory, along with evidence that it was shells that first adorned our big-brained bodies.
I’m a coastal gal at heart, so for now I’m sticking with the coastal theory. Similar to all good scientists, I’ve no doubt others will eventually agree, once sea levels drop again & we find the evidence that was there all along. It will be colder then (I know, hard to imagine at the moment), & we humans may not still be around, but if we are, you might remember that I told you about this once, long ago, around that crackling, online campfire.