Fire-starters: Khoisan children in southern Africa around a fire. (Photo: Getty)
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Ray Mears: “What I believe defines us as human is our mastery of fire”

Our ability to harness flames has shaped who we are.

We share our lives on this incredible planet with many other creatures, each of which has its own special trait or survival skill, a characteristic attribute by which it can be defined. Our special trick gives us the impression that we are in some way elevated above other animals, but of course we are not; it is important to remember that we are mammals, upright walking creatures, descended from an ancient line of apes believed to have originated in Africa. With a free thumb, we have the ability to fashion tools easily. It is believed that we have been making tools for more than 2.5 million years. Yet that does not define us. Other animals can make tools, too: sea otters use stones to break open oyster shells, and other primates even fashion weaponry for hunting.

What I believe defines us as human is our mastery of fire. Before we assume that we are the only users of fire in nature, we should think again. Just last year I watched hawks in Australia pick up burning sticks from a bushfire and drop them to spread the fire, flushing out or scorching potential prey. But no other creature has been found who can make fire at will.

In the world of archaeology, the earliest sign of human control of fire is a hotly debated topic, with few definite remains surviving from such antiquity. However, evidence appears to show fire hearths dating from one million years ago. It is reasonable to assume that fire was originally obtained from natural sources such as bushfires, which could then be kept burning.

Even today, there are peoples such as the Bayaka pygmies of the Congo Basin who carry fire with them, hardly ever needing to kindle a flame because, as they told me, “We don’t let our fire go out – it is the oldest fire in the world.” I have also worked with Australian Aboriginals who historically could not make fire and who would have to send runners to bring back fire from distant neighbouring tribes if their fire was allowed to go out.

Fire altered humankind’s potential forever. Now, we wielded a tool powerful enough to keep even the most ferocious early Palaeolithic predators at bay; the fear of nocturnal dangers was dispelled; and the fire became a focus for life, around which our forebears could gather in good cheer. (That sight is still played out nightly in the villages of the San Bushmen of the Kalahari.)

In the flames and coals of their fires, our ancestors learned to alter their food, to improve its flavour, to neutralise plant toxins and destroy harmful bacteria. Consequently our dietary range grew and diversified. It has been argued that our “fire-improved” diet may well have been a catalyst for the development of our large brain.

Until fire was harnessed, the length of the day was determined by sunlight; firelight extended the working day, made time available to communicate, to share ideas and be creative. In the sign language of Native Americans, the concept of meeting for a talk is defined by coming to a fire and sharing ideas, and even today the footlights of our theatres mimic the flickering light of a fire on the face of an ancestral storyteller.

We don’t have to have been there to realise that the question of how to make fire from scratch would have occupied the minds gathered at the campfire. If I could travel back in time I would hope to witness the first of our ancestors achieving this remarkable skill. The consequences of that first ember were astonishing. No modern invention comes close in importance to the creation of the first fire.

For more than 30 years I have been teaching students how to make fire, by every primitive means known. Although we will never know which was the first method of fire-lighting, some things never change. Each time a student succeeds in friction fire-lighting, their face lights up with a huge sense of achievement. Like an ancient ritual, the drama of the first fire is relived.

Being able to make fire at will brings confidence. Our ancestors were able to spread out, exploring their landscape in smaller foraging parties with fire for safety and with smoke to locate each other again. (I have witnessed Aboriginals in Australia’s Arnhem Land watching for smoke across flooded swamps to track the movements of family members.) Now, even colder landscapes posed little obstacle as our ancestors migrated across the planet, perhaps clinging to the unexplored coastline or following seasonal migrations of game inland.

The fireside became our most important laboratory. Here, as we stared into the flames, we observed the way fire could transform materials. We learned to harden the points of wooden spears, to soften thermoplastic tree resins and use them as adhesives to haft stone points. Here, too, we would discover that clay could be hardened into pottery. The process of scientific investigation was reinforced along the way through observation, hypothesis and experimentation. Inevitably we discovered metal and the rest is history. Everything flows from here, from the clothes we wear to the incredible devices contained in our pockets and the means by which my words reach you now. All this derives from our mastery of fire.

You have only to observe the face of an infant gazing into a fire to realise how deeply our fascination with it is rooted in the human mind. Fire has given us power and allowed us to modify the very landscape within which we evolved.

Perhaps the question we should be asking is this: how will humanity be judged to have used its special skill? 

Ray Mears is a broadcaster, author and founder of the Woodlore school of bushcraft
The “What Makes Us Human?” series is published in association with Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood