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The first to fuel the fire

- Chanté Schatz

The first fuel that enabled human beings to land on the moon was harnessed right here in Africa. 

The first to fuel the fire


Border Cave © Lucinda Blackwell | Curiosity 15: #Energy ©

The history of fire is something of a smokescreen, as researchers have not been able to pinpoint the exact period in which it was first used. Nevertheless, its enduring power dating from millions of years ago has not gone unnoticed in the crevices of the Earth’s surface.

“The earliest evidence of fire in the literature is 1.6 million years ago and is recorded in a site in Kenya in the Turkana basin, although this is controversial, because not everybody accepts that date,” says Professor Francis Thackeray, a palaeoanthropologist in the Evolutionary Studies Institute (ESI) at Wits University.

Brain and burnt bones

One of the earliest discoveries of the use of controlled fire was made in the 1970s. That’s when palaeontologist Charles ‘Bob’ Brain excavated burnt bones in deposits thought to be about one million years old inside the Swartkrans cave located in the Cradle of Humankind, northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa.

“Brain was very meticulous. He studied bones that had been blackened and after chemical analysis found that the temperature of the fire was in the order of 700 degrees Celsius. You don’t get this kind of temperature from grass fires. A veld fire can be quick and burns at a relatively low temperature of about 200 degrees,” says Thackeray.

The presence and distribution of these burnt bones recovered from Member 3 in the cave was claimed to be the earliest direct evidence for use of fire by hominids on record.  

Flame-grilled fruits

Fire in prehistory was discovered in various cave systems in southern Africa including the Wonderwerk Cave in the Northern Cape, Klasies River in the Eastern Cape, as well as the Border Cave in KwaZulu-Natal. 

Professor Lyn Wadley in the ESI found the earliest example of fire used for cooking at the Border Cave, which was first occupied at least 227 000 years ago, although its earlier occupation has not yet been dated. 

“Right from the beginning of human occupation in Border Cave, people were lighting fires and cooking meat. From about 170 000 years ago, people in Border Cave were also collecting edible Hypoxis rhizomes [underground stems of a genus of flowering plants] that were transported to the cave for cooking and sharing,” says Wadley. “This is the earliest known evidence anywhere of the cooking of plants, but of course the practice may have been earlier.”

Today, Homo sapiens is the only species that has been able fully to master fire. As Thackeray explains: “Without the controlled use of fire, it would not be possible to power a rocket. Without a rocket, it would not be possible to go to the moon. So, in a sense, the first small technological that led to the giant leap of lunar exploration, began here in South Africa.” 

  • Chanté Schatz is Multimedia Communications Officer for Wits University.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced by Wits Communications and the Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation.
  • Read more in the 15th issue, themed: #Energy. We explore energy research into finding solutions for SA's energy crisis, illuminate energy needs of people with disabilities, address the energy and digital divide in an unequal society, and investigate the origins of fire control.