Humans burn plant matter for many reasons; clearing forests for agricultural land, slash-and-burn agriculture, ritual savannah burning, wildfires. Recent research by Professor Mark Jacobson at Standford University suggests that burning living matter may contribute far more to climate change than previously thought. This is because, unlike other types of emissions, burning plant matter releases carbon particles into the atmosphere which accelerate warming. These particles are also very damaging to human health, and are responsible for the deaths of 250,000 people every year.
Each year, humans pump nearly 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We are now certain that these emissions, along with other greenhouse gases, are altering our climate and warming the planet. One major source of carbon dioxide emissions is burning plant matter, either deliberately or because of wildfires. But the contribution of fires to climate change has not previously been quantified.
Over the last few months I’ve been discussing the characteristics that make us human, and which of the classic ‘uniquely human’ traits, really are ours and ours alone. But one aspect of human behaviour which I have not discussed so far is our use of fire. No other animal has learned to harness and control fire as humans have.
A recent discovery of wood ash along with animal bones and stone tools in a cave in South Africa suggests that humans may have used fire as early as 1 million years ago. This is around 300,000 years earlier than previously thought, and may indicate that earlier hominid species such as Homo erectus were using fire. Other tentative support for fire use by early hominids such as H.erectus and A.robustus have been found in South Africa and Kenya, possibly as early as 1.5 million years ago. Further evidence from Northern Israel in the form of burnt flint tools and plant remains indicates that H. erectusmay have been controlling fire around 800,000 years ago.
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