Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Speculations About Fire, Liquid Hot Magma, and Human Evolution


DISCLAIMER: this post is just for fun and does not report on mainstream paleoanthropological research. The title of the paper in the Journal of Fire Ecology is actually "Speculations About the Effects of Fire and Lava Flows on Human Evolution".  The author comes right out and says that
this paper is not a scientific presentation of hypotheses that have been extensively tested in the field. Rather, it is a playful exercise in speculation and even 'just so stories' about human evolution and fire.
And the author Michael Medler certainly does speculate.  He starts by making the observation that hominins  (east African ones at least) evolved in a region characterized by very active volcanism (indisputable). Perhaps then, he goes on, fire has shaped human adaptations over millions of years.  This is not totally outside the realm of what some actual anthropologists have said (e.g Wrangham, 2009)....more or less that fire for cooking food and warmth was really important late in human evolution as hominins spread out of the tropics.


Medler's comparison of Ardi to author doing yardwork


But Medler goes wild, arguing that fire can explain human hairlessness (hair burns!), tool use (hand-axes are fuel processing tools), and even the origins of bipedalism.   He actually goes so far in his Figure 2  to talk about how Ardi's purported combination of arboreal behaviors and bipedalism would have been very good for collecting firewood and walking over to feed already burning volcanic fires on the ground! Could be, but I doubt it.  This is kind of like the (fiery)savannah hypothesis redux, and has all the the problems that the savannah hypothesis has for the earlier part of human evolution. Also, it is totally untestable...how would we ever know whether or not Ardi was feeding sticks to natural fires and having her hair burn off? Crazy stuff, but kind of fun to think about.

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