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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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

***

The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

***

The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

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Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

***

Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

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Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.

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