The Anthropocene began 400,000 years ago when fire was “controlled”

A new paper tries to address when the “age of man” – the Anthropocene – bagan. The authors argue for 1610 when “an unusual drop in atmospheric carbon dioxide and the irreversible exchange of species between the New and Old Worlds” began.

I find this a rather arrogant Eurocentric fantasy which is less than convincing. Animal species – and humans – reached the Americas and Australia and Europe long before that.  The Norsemen took rats over to the Americas 500 years before that. Dog species from India crossed to Australia somehow 10,000 years ago. Darwin did not take wild-life to the Galapagos – they were already there. That the ancient civilizations of Egypt and China and the Mohenjo-Daro Valley were not part of the “Age of Man” seems to me to be just arrogance. That the Greeks or the Romans came before the “Age of Man” borders on stupidity. The Age of Man must begin when the dominance of the species Homo becomes established and sustainable.  While there is no other species which uses tools  as widely as Humans some other species do use tools. But there is no other species at all which can start a fire let alone control it.

Simon L. Lewis, Mark A. Maslin. Defining the Anthropocene. Nature, 2015; 519 (7542): 171 DOI: 10.1038/nature14258

Summary: Time is divided by geologists according to marked shifts in Earth’s state. Recent global environmental changes suggest that Earth may have entered a new human-dominated geological epoch, the Anthropocene. Here we review the historical genesis of the idea and assess anthropogenic signatures in the geological record against the formal requirements for the recognition of a new epoch. The evidence suggests that of the various proposed dates two do appear to conform to the criteria to mark the beginning of the Anthropocene: 1610 and 1964. The formal establishment of an Anthropocene Epoch would mark a fundamental change in the relationship between humans and the Earth system.

The advent and control of fire led – eventually but inevitably –  to the Stone Age transforming into the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. And in due course it has given the Machine Age, the Electrical Age, the Plastics Age and the current Semiconductors Age. All these “Ages” are surely part of the Anthropocene. There is a case to be made for the advent of stone tools defining Man but I think there is a much stronger case to be made for the advent and control of fire being what defines and distinguishes “Man” from all other animals.

Once fire was harnessed, the dominance of Homo Sapiens not just over other species but also over the environment became inevitable. Fire saw humans through the Ice Ages. The Stone Age plus fire gave the Bronze Age. The Bronze Age + fire led to the Iron Age. It was fire in its various avatars (hearths to ovens to smelters, or energy to steam to electricity) which helped transform one Age to the next.

The one single capability which initiated the divergence of humans from all other animals and which has resulted in the inevitable development and domination of modern humans is the control of fire. And that was around 400,000 years ago. The Age of Man began when Homo Erectus learned to produce fire at will and to contain fire in a hearth. I would even speculate that without fire Homo Erectus would not have survived to evolve into Homo Sapiens. Without fire Homo Sapiens would not have thrived through the ice ages or left the tropics to colonise more northern climes.

The Age of Man started long before 1610. Perhaps 1610 is a date of great significance – but that was not the start of the Age of Man. The Anthropocene started with fire 400,000 years ago.


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