How and when was fire made for the first time?
As to how fire was made, there’s two likely methods: the percussive or ‘strike-a-light’ method where a hard rock like flint is struck against iron pyrite to create tiny sparks; and, friction-fire. Iron pyrite and flint strikers have been found in the archaeological record but the wooden components of friction fire sets rot away so knowing which method came first is a mystery.
Answering the question of when fire was made for the first time, isn’t at all clear either. Archaeologists describe human’s control of fire in stages: a continuum that begins with interaction with fire; for example, following in the wake of a wildfire to forage for food. The second stage is control of fire: capturing naturally occurring fire, arising from lightning strikes or volcanic activity, and containing, feeding and sustaining it to cook with, shape wooden and stone tools, keep warm and ward off wild animals. In the third and last stage humans learn how to make fire.
Putting dates on this is tricky because evidence of human fires in open areas can get washed away and wildfires can charr tools and bones associated old camps. For that reason, archaeologists look for evidence of fires in caves, where naturally occurring fires don’t happen. Archaeologists working in France have studied caves inhabited by Neanderthals between 100,000 and 40,000 years ago. In the older deposits there’s lots of evidence of fire: there are hearths, charred bones and interestingly evidence of glues (produced with the use of fire) to haft stone axe heads to wooden shafts. In the younger layers however – between 70,000 and 40,000 years ago – there’s no evidence of fire. This coincides with a period when the climate in Europe was much colder, a period when fire would have been most useful. The archaeologists conclude that Neanderthals had hadn’t learnt to make fire themselves and had relied upon – during the earlier warmer climatic period – naturally occurring fire.
Whether Neanderthals could make fire or not remains controversial, but it’s certainly evident that homo sapiens were making and using fire in Europe during the Upper Paleolithic period (about 50,000 to 10,000 years ago).
All of these musings on archaeology and scholarly articles, about how and when fire was made, contrast with what makes sense to me as a bushcrafter. Particularly in a Scottish context, thinking about the stone age hunter gatherers that ventured north along the coastline 9000 years ago, what seems plausible to me is fire produced by friction fire. The reason is that, in all my time in the outdoors, I’ve never found iron pyrite. Now this may be because I lack experience in looking for and using it, but certainly the raw materials for friction fire are easier to find. Even a mile from my flat here in Glasgow I can find wood suitable for friction fire and in the past woodland with hazel, willow and aspen would have been much more abundant.
After lots of practice, I’ve learnt to make a bow drill friction fire set, produce an ember and make fire. There were many failures along the way: early on I struggled with finding a bearing block that allowed the spindle to spin freely and I tried and failed with nettle, flax and bramble cordage before having success with two-ply cordage made from spruce roots.
Persevering with friction fire taught me not to rush, to take my time and select natural materials with the right properties. Over time I’ve developed a feel for subtle textures and an eye for visual clues that help me select and prepare the materials I need. I learnt that rotten wood with a spongy texture extends the small ember produced through friction fire; that slightly punky pale-coloured sycamore with a black streak of fungus through it makes an excellent hearth board; that the broad blond blades of purple moor grass are highly flammable and an ideal material for a tinder nest; that limpet shells provide a friction free bearing block; and that tying off just one end of the bow cord and holding other between my fingers allows me to maintain just the right tension, preventing the cord from either snapping or becoming too loose. What I hadn’t learnt to do, however, was use stone tools. I’d relied on a knife to shape the spindle, cut the V-shaped notch in the hearth board and prepare and split spruce roots. I felt that if I could experiment with stone tools I might a new insight into the experience of those hunter gatherers.
In early November, with a few days off, I decided to give it a go: to try and make fire with no modern tools. I decided to go to Taynish Nature Reserve, near Tayvallich in Argyll. It was an area I’d never been to before, but from what I’d researched, it would be an ideal place. The nature reserve is a narrow peninsula aligned north south, heavily covered by Atlantic Oak woodland, a mixture of oak, hazel, willow, holly and birch. There would be bracken, grasses and heather as well to use as tinders. The peninsula has been designated a National Nature Reserve because the woodland is a remnant of the ancient forest that once covered the west of Scotland.
I drove to the reserve in the evening and set up my hammock between two oak trees. In the morning I got started. The weather was sunny, dry and a little frosty. I had a long list of stuff to gather:
- Tinders: purple moor grass, clematis bark, dead braken, birch bark and dead heather tied together in a bundle
- Ember extender: punk wood
- Cutting and abrasive tools: quartz, slate and schist rocks with sharp edges and corners
- Spindle and hearth board: dead standing hazel
- Bow: willow
- Bow cordage: spruce roots
- Bearing block: limpet shell
- Ember platform: a leaf
The hardest part of the process I reckoned would be shaping of the spindle and hearth board using stone tools. I was expecting that bit to take a long time.
I started work at about 9am and figured it could well take an entire day to get everything ready. I started with the easy bit, collecting the tinders: bracken, clematis bark, birch bark, heather and purple moor grass. Within an hour I had everything I needed. The grass was a little damp however so I laid it out in the sun to dry through the day.
Next I look for some punk wood to use as an ember extender. When you get an ember from friction fire there is a risk you can accidentally drop it or use it up before it ignites into flame in a tinder nest. Punk wood is rotten wood that is soft and spongy. If you can find some that is dry it is very effective in sustaining an ember. Without too much searching I found an old birch tree by the path which had dry punk wood of just the right consistency to work well.
Next I began looking for dead standing hazel for the spindle and hearth board. The wood needed to be dead, dry, straight and quite hard. There was lots of it about but much of it was damp and too soft and punky. This was a really critical stage. I didn’t want to spend hours shaping hazel with stone tools to find out later that it wasn’t hard enough. Whenever I found myself settling and thinking “that’ll be good enough’ I stopped, slowed down and looked for something better. I collected lots of suitable bits then took a break for lunch. I made soup, coffee and cheese scones.
After lunch I headed down to a spot where there was an old ruined mill. There I’d found some slate, lots of masonry and an outcrop of quartz and schist that would be good for shaping the spindle and hearth board. I laid out my selection of hazel and picked out the best bit for a spindle: a piece that was both dry, hard and straight. At first I experimented with using some quartz to cut shavings of the spindle, to narrow its diameter to a fine point. Whilst it worked well to scrape off the bark, it didn’t cut well and did little to shape the spindle. Next I tried schist, using it like sandpaper to abrade the hazel. This worked well and I quickly narrowed the spindle down to form a fine point that would go into a limpet shell bearing block. After that I used some slate, using a sawing motion, to cut the spindle to the correct length. This worked surprisingly well. After rounding off the end of the spindle I was done. Pleased with how quickly I’d managed to make the spindle I decided to make another one, as a backup. After that I selected a piece of hazel for the hearth board, then used the schist to sand it flat to a thickness of about 2cm.
My next job was to find limpet shells to use a bearing block and spruce trees or Scots pines to make cordage for the bow. There were only a few small Scots pines in the reserve itself so I decided to walk out of the reserve to conifer forest about 5km to the north. On the way I came across a small stony beach where I collected limpet shells.
At the forest I found lots of tall spruce trees. I used a stick to dig up the earth around the base of the trees, feeling for the long malleable roots I needed. I managed to find some that were about 1cm in diameter and 2m long. I used a sharp bit of quartz cut the roots free then scrape the mud and red-coloured skin-like outer layer of the root, revealing the uniform, white, smooth inner core. After that I used my quartz tool cut a small slice in the end of the root, sufficient for me get my thumbs in and peel back and split the entire length of root into two halves. After I’d done that I repeated the process, quartering the roots and ending up with four 2m lengths of simple rope. As I walked began back to the nature reserve I twisted the strands into cord.
Returning to the mill I set out to burn in the hearth board. I cut a small divot in the hearth board using a piece of slate, to hold the spindle in position. Then I carefully assembled all the bits: hearthboard on the ground, held secure by my left foot; the bow drill cord wrapped around the spindle; the bow held in my right hand and the cord tensioned by my fingers; the limpet shell bearing block held in my left hand on top of the spindle. Carefully I began to draw the bow back and forth. To my delight the cord gripped well and the spindle began to spin, faster and faster, warming up the hearth board, generating heat, creating smoke and burning in the hearth board. Job done! The final thing to do was to form a V-shaped notch in the hearth board to allow the dust to collect on the ember platform (a hazel leaf). I used a selection of angled rocks to abrade the hearth board, slowly creating the notch. It was hard to get the angle of the notch right. It needs to be about 60 degrees: big enough to allow an ember to form but small enough to prevent the spindle from jumping out. After 20min I’d formed the notch – not too bad but a little wide. As the sun set, after seven hours of work, I decided to call it a day.
Next morning it was sunny and bright. I wandered down to the shore to get ready. Despite an overnight frost the sun on the east facing shore was bright and it felt warm. I found a flat dry rock to work on. I set up the bow drill and began to draw the bow. Unfortunately the spindle popped out. After repeated attempts I concluded that the V-shaped notch I’d made the night before was too wide. Time to redo yesterday’s work. I made another divot in the hearth board, repeated the burning in step then cut the V-shaped notch, taking more care this time to make it the right angle.
I set up and drew the bow again. Happily the spindle didn’t pop out. I took it steady, not pressing down too hard and not going to fast in an effort to steadily warm up and drive out moisture from the hearth board. I felt a lot of heat through the limpet shell. Normally I’d use a leather glove to protect my hand but not this time, in keeping with my ‘no tools rule’. The heat got too much I had to stop. I needed something to insulate my hand. Some damp grass might work. I collected some, formed it into a little birds nest shape and placed it between my hand and the bearing block. I set too again, drawing the bow and spinning the spindle. It was going well until … ‘crack’, the limpet shell broke apart. “Here we go” I thought, this is going to be a struggle. Patiently I reached for another shell. Again I set too with the bow. I built up the speed and before long I got smoke, then more heat and I watched the pile of dust build up, filling the V shaped notch. I sped up and pressed down a bit harder trying to heat the end of the spindle to 800 celsius, the temperature at which the dust would ignite and form an ember. The profusion of smoke coming from the set told me I was there. I stopped, carefully lifted the spindle up and looked for the tell-tale slender wisp of smoke emanating from the dust … and there it was. I’d done it. I reached for some punk wood and carefully lifted off the hearth board, revealing the ember. I gently added small bits of punk wood onto the ember, feeding it and sustaining it. Rather than placing the ember into a tinder bundle of dried grass I decided not to risk disturbing it and placed the grass directly on top. I blew on the ember gently and in a matter of seconds it burst into flame. With my bundle of grass ablaze in my hand I quickly stepped across to my fire lay of dry wood. Next I added bracken and plenty of birch bark. The flames leapt up two feet into the air. Next some fire birch twigs, heather and then some thicker branches and the fire was established.
I spent the next hour sitting by the fire on the shore, enjoying the warmth and the satisfaction of producing fire with no tools. What surprised me was how straightforward it had been to use stone tools. It wasn’t as difficult or time consuming as I thought it would be. The range of stones available to me: schist, quartz and slate offered lots of scope to shape the wood. I’m convinced that people in the past would have spent a great deal of time scanning the ground and shore for useful rocks, selecting and banging together rocks to test their hardness and qualities as cutting tools. Maybe that’s what I need to do to find iron pyrite: just spend way more messing around with rocks, that or call my geologist friend Al McGowan for some help. I think my 2020 fire-making project is going to be trying to produce fire using the percussion method with iron pyrite and quartz.