| Birk Grueling |
Salt Lake City, Utah (dpa) – Nightly gatherings around the camp fire may well have contributed significantly to the development of human culture.
That’s according to US anthropologist Polly Wiessner from the University of Utah, who spent six months observing the daily routines of Ju/’hoan hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari region of southern Africa in their age-old way of life.
Her thesis is that learning to control fire more than 400,000 years ago extended the day for early humans. From then on, hunter-gatherers could devote time to the community without neglecting the productive activities that had to be carried out in daylight.
The camp fire thus would have become an important cornerstone for the development of social structures and cultural institutions. In addition to nightly conversations, fire brought a preference for heated food and helped keep predators away, according to the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Wiessner observed the daily routines of Ju/’hoansi, also sometimes known as Bushmen, in Botswana and Namibia and noticed that around 75 per cent of all conversations during the day were about the organisation of work or the regulation of social relations.
The camp fire is an important cornerstone for the development of social structures and cultural institutions, according to an American anthropologist. EPA
In the evening the subject matter changed significantly – 81 per cent of conversations now revolved around the adventures of the day. Dancing, singing and story-telling featured and religious ceremonies also played an important role. These activities are very important for living together in a community, Wiessner wrote.
Around the evening campfire cultural values and norms are strengthened and transmitted, even to people from other cultures.
Wiessner considers her observations to be an indication of the large impact that control of fire had on social and cultural evolution.
Of course it’s hard to extrapolate from a modern culture to prehistoric communities who left no written sources behind and there’s little archaeological evidence of daily life but Wiessner argues watching the Ju/’hoan alerts us to things we otherwise overlook.
Not much is known about the religion or social structure of prehistoric peoples or the level of contact between individual groups.
Most studies into the use of fire by prehistoric people have concentrated on more practical issues such as its impact on diet. Some researchers have put forward cooking as the key to the evolutionary success of humans.