The History of Forest Keeping (And Fire)

In the short span of a single lifetime, humans have experienced hundreds of wonderful advances in technology. Yet the forests still stand tall, in part thanks to the work of fire. Since before humans…

The History of Forest Keeping (And Fire)

In the short span of a single lifetime, humans have experienced hundreds of wonderful advances in technology. Yet the forests still stand tall, in part thanks to the work of fire. Since before humans have lived, people have used fire to keep forests safe, to battle wildfires, to harvest oaks and other trees and to give animal life a safe place to live. How much of this forest keeping strategy is the same thing humans are doing today?

Archeologists have long known that ancient humans kept a torch — and may have had their own distinct fire-fighting techniques. The recent discovery of a stone-age camp in a forest in South Africa has confirmed this commonality with modern-day humans. Instead of using a pit as a makeshift fire pit, the people living there used hollowed-out logs, often with picks and knives to cut them up to feed their fire. “They are equipped with a more complex tool set than people today,” archaeologist Philip Butler said, according to the BBC. The shaman of this camp was burning the ancient materials he used for medicines, cosmetics and tools to give it a “specific character” and memory.

A hunter-gatherer camp in the South African alps. Photo: Thomas van der Westhuizen/Bloomsbury Publishing

It’s not just the humans who have been benefiting from this strategy. As the BBC story notes, woodstoves and wood fires have been used since well before our palaeolithic ancestors died out. A 2000-year-old fire showed that modern settlers are continuing the use of fire as an essential ecological function, as there were still several fire pits within the circular camp. The news, for now, is more evidence that ancient fire and modern humans share a good will to kill some firewood for food.

The haunting image of a cave complex in northwestern Iran with a range of wooden fire pits. Photo: Sharif Sagolnian/AFP/Getty Images

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