BU Anthropology Department Investigates the Origins of Fire and Man

Most people probably haven’t heard of the Wonderwerk Cave. An enormous 140-meter long tunnel first excavated in the 1970s, the cave lies in Southern Africa and reaches deep enough for archeologists to learn things from our post.

Yesterday, two well-known professors came to Boston University to talk about hypotheses and findings from this cave. Both Dr. Francesco Berna, an Adjunct Assistant Professor at BU, and Dr. John Shea, a Professor at Stony Brook University, carried the excitement and energy through the webcast, making even the slightest details interesting.

Prometheus and Prehistory | Photo from BU Anthropology Department
Prometheus and Prehistory | Photo from BU Anthropology Department

Fire is one of the most integral parts of our modern day society. Acting as liaisons to the past, both professors discussed how learning where fire comes from will not only help us better interpret our ancestors but also apply our newfound knowledge to the future.

Dr. Berna was more than happy to shed light on the origins of fire. He began his presentation light and focused on the uses of fire and then addressed the ultimate question of the talk: when did humans start using fire?

To answer this question, Dr. Berna first discussed the historical periods of mankind from homo sapiens, to Neanderthals, and lastly, homo erectus.

However, instead of arguing one ancestor of man in particular, Dr. Berna turned his attention to the Wonderwerk Cave. His slides during the webcast were full of detailed pictures and diagrams of the different methods archaeologists use to find answers.

The amount of pure technical knowledge was overwhelming, so it was not long before Dr. Shea took the reins and redirected the webcast.

What were earlier humans doing with fire? His presentation focused on a particular kind of fire, specifically anthropogenic fire, the controlled use of fire by humans. Instead of debating the entry of fire into human hands or places where evidence could be found, he mainly focused on how human fire is unique.

Additionally, Dr. Shea discussed both the benefits and costs of this fire. Fire not only creates warmth, allowing survival, but it also prepared our earlier ancestors for its uses in cooking, protection, and the production of certain metals. Unfortunately, fire has also resulted in some of the worst disasters of the past. But, as was reiterated many times, what really makes fire interesting is the search for its origins.

Both Dr. Shea and Boston University’s own Professor Berna agreed the key signs of fire usage were deposits of ash and burnt bones or tools. They discussed these methods lightly, but it was evident that there was a large amount of work dedicated to finding these signs.

Dr. Berna discussed the work that goes into this kind of research by discussing his own experience. Last summer, Dr. Berna headed a team of archaeologists to the Wonderwerk cave where they found evidence of cooking. The team, whose pictures were shown during the presentation, was made up of experienced and excitable researchers, many of whom came from the Boston Area.

Overall, the presentation was striking in its accessibility to non-archaeology students, and the manner in which both presenters talked. The topic, one that many people aren’t familiar with, is one worth learning about. So the next time procrastination strikes, look into the origins of fire – it’s worth it.

The full statements from Dr. Francesco Berna and Dr. John Shea can be found here

Gabriella Gricius

Gabriella Gricius (CAS ’15) is from northern Virginia, near to Washington, D.C. She studies International Relations and Linguistics. When she is not in class, she works with the student theater group Wandering Minds as a techie, spends time with the Linguistics Association and Model United Nations, and loves any kind of books long with chess.

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