History of Fire
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Fire

People have been using fire to cook their food for almost as long as there have been people on earth. African people invented on-purpose cooking fires probably about one million years ago.

At first, people cooked on outside wood fires - there weren't very many people, so there was plenty of wood to burn, and people spent most of their time outside anyway. When people left Africa, about 60,000 years ago, they brought the idea of cooking fires with them all over the world.

Perhaps the last Ice Age, which ended about 10,000 BC, made people invent the idea of fires inside, to keep their caves warm.

But by the Late Stone Age, around 6000 BC, people were beginning to live in houses, and the houses were in small villages. They needed to be more careful with their wood supply, to make it last. They started to use ovens. Also, they began to make fired pottery around this time, which needs very hot and long fires in a kiln (a sort of oven).

By 4000 BC they started to cook on charcoal fires, instead of just using wood. You make charcoal by slowly burning wood in a kiln with very little air- this half-burned wood is charcoal. It burns more efficiently and hotter than wood (You use charcoal today in backyard barbecues).

Around 3000 BC, people in West Asia began to use charcoal to smelt copper and tin together into bronze. You need a hot charcoal fire to smelt metal - wood fires don't burn hot enough.

Blacksmiths needed even hotter fires to smelt iron. The method was not invented until about 1500 BC, by the Hittites in West Asia, and then it spread to the rest of Asia and to Europe from there. African blacksmiths may have invented iron smelting for themselves, about 300 AD.

The Romans, beginning around 200 BC during the Roman Republic, used charcoal fires to heat air and water and piped it through their houses to heat their houses and to get hot water for public and private bath buildings. But most people used small charcoal fires in clay braziers to heat their houses and to cook on at home.

Monks chop wood
Monks chopping wood

In the Middle Ages in Europe, these pipes went out of use, and people went back to wood or charcoal fires on hearths in their houses. They did start to use chimneys to get the smoke out of their houses. At the same time, in the Islamic Empire in West Asia and North Africa, people kept on using hot water pipes to heat rich people's houses and public baths, and clay braziers for small fires.


The dangers of fire
African invention of fire
Charcoal
Practical Engineering
Main science page

Teachers' guides on ancient science
Science-related gifts


Celebrating Black History Month with the pharaoh Hatshepsut, the queen Shanakdakhete, the poet Phillis Wheatley, the medical consultant Onesimus, the freedom fighters Toussaint L'Ouverture, Denmark Vesey, Yaa Asantewaa, and Samora Moises Machel, and the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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