Making fire LO25295

From: Leo Minnigh (
Date: 09/05/00

Dear LO'ers,

In LO25151 I wrote:

>The god of technology is Prometheus, the god of fire. Fire to promote
>entropy production. My question is

> how do the San people make fire?

>Personally I have thought much of the common theories that
>archeaologists have about 'making fire', and I believe that 'primitive'
>people have used other ways as well. I well share with you my thoughts
>later, after receiving the response on my question.

Maybe the answer to this question is unknown within this audience. Maybe,
we think that this question is not important. However, fire is according
to some athropologists essential for the human being. And I am sure that
also the San people make use of fire for their cooking and for the making
of all kinds of tools and furnature. Maybe at present the San have easy
access to matches and cigaretlighters, but in the old days that was

I have contemplated for a while, how ancient people could make fire. Here
are the results of my thinking.

Making fire

Fire is fascinating, but for hominids possibly also a necessity. At least
it is by some anthropologists concerned as the distinction between the
species 'homo' and the world belonging to other animals.

It is interesting to think of various manners of making fire. One can
find a common and popular method: fire created by friction - a piece of
wood is rotated very fast (rotating point in hollow of a stone) with some
dry plant material near the rotating point. Soon smoke and then fire will
start. Flat stones with a hollow have been found as artifacts in
settlements of ancient people.

There are however several other ways of making fire, of which I am sure
some have been put in practice as well. But these methods usually don't
left artifacts as proofs. So it is speculation.

1. Nature itself knows of fire and human beings could make use of it.
A. Lightening could cause fire. However it is usually unpredictable where
and when, so as common method not likely.
B. In volcanic areas it is different. In these areas there is always a
heat source, often sufficient to create fire on demand. Possibly our
ancestors in East Africa (Olduvai valley, Turkana, Ethiopia) have made use
of this method. Also in their times there was a lot of volcanic activity
in that part of the world (in fact there is a theory that human evolution
has followed the geological East African Rift Zone).
C. Spontaneous combustion of coal measures. At present in China vast
layers of coal are in fire. It is a terrible disaster, and China needs a
lot of world's assistance to cope with these fires. These fires start
spontaneous if coal is in contact with air and these layers burn already
for centuries (also underground). Daily, more carbondioxide is produced by
these fires, than western Europe produces in a year!
D. In Terra del Fuego (land of fire) on the souther tip of South America,
fossil fuels are in fire. Once in fire (for instance by lightening) it
will stay on fire as long as oil or natural gas seepages continue. Other
places in the world are known with similar reasons of fire. (the use of
fossil fuels will be delt with later).

A. We all know the trick with the hand lense. Concentrate the light of the
sun, focus it by a piece of glass, and soon fire will start. Glass is
known from millenia. Even natural glass exists (obsidian, a volcanic
product, but this is mainly black and not transparant). I don't know if
clear pieces of glass as artifacts are found that could have served as
hand lense. I am also not sure if in Namibia, where raw diamonds occur,
these precious stones could serve as handlenses and initiators of fire.
Also clear mountain crystal (quartz) could be polished in a lense shape.
B. What a piece of glass can do, could also a convex mirror do. Are
polished metal pieces known from ancient history that could serve as
fire-mirror? I don't know. A very, very speculative idea is the possiblity
of parabola sand dunes. With proper orientation of these typical desert
dunes and proper position of the sun, it is for sure that enormous heat
will be concentrated in the focal spots of the parabola. If these spots
could serve as places for fire generation is unsure.
C. Maybe it is possible to make a kind of convex mirror of salt, or other
shiny material, like marble. Salt is very reflective and I can imagine
that such types of mirrors could serve as fire initiators. Salt is not a
material to leave artifacts, so if this speculation has some truth, we
never will know if it is used in history. I don't know of marble sun

A hay-stack could become overheated by bacteria activity and fire could
start. A pile of any kind of organic material could come in an overheated
condition and it will not surprise me if in prehistoric times this method
was known.

4. Natural gas.
Flintstones are known for very long time that they are able to spark.
These stones are usually composed of quartz (SiO2) and I really don't know
why these stones generate sparks and what is in fact sparking. But anyhow,
these stones work as sparking machine.
However, a spark is seldomly sufficient to let something to burn. Gas will
do, as we know from our modern cigaret lighters. There are several
occasions where natural gas occurs.
A. Underground oil and gas fields could be leaking in the surface. Also
natural tar could be present on the surface. Like in Tierra del Fuego,
South England, Middle East, Texas, etc. All these hydrocarbons could be
lightened be the spark of a flintstone.
B. Marsh gas (methane) is another natural gas. The burning of marsh gas is
the source for many mysterious fairy tails and superstitious legends. In
some areas a fair amount of marsh gas is produced. Here in the Netherlands
farmers in some places sample this gas by means of a belljar and use this
gas for cooking. To me it was a surprise when I discovered a couple of
winters ago that all the air bubbles frozen in the ice on canals where
composed of gas, instead of air. If a small hole is made in these bubbles,
and when lighted, they could burn for minutes. I am sure that in
prehistoric times this way of making fire was a commonly used method.
C. There is another occurrence of natural gas: the gas produced by animals
during digestion. The swollen belly of a dead cow or other animal is
obvious and is full of gas. Also this gas could have been used for making
fire. A couiple of decennia ago, there was a veterinarian who treated a
living cow that suffered severly of a congestion. If the belly is swollon,
one should act immediately by making a perforation in the belly to degas.
This veterinarian treated this cow in the stable of a farmhouse. The
surgeon demonstrated to the farmer the fact that it is really gas that
blew-up the cow, by lightening the escaping gas. It was a very sad
learning experiment: the complate farm house was destroyed by the
resulting fire.
But we all know that this gas is produced daily. Yes, we call it farts.
And possibly, although it needs some parctice, ancient people could have
lightened their farts to set a campfire for roasting the meat. It is a
possibility that the San people used the oistrich eggshells for sampling
their own gas. Who knows?

So far my ideas on making fire.

dr. Leo D. Minnigh
Library Technical University Delft
PO BOX 98, 2600 MG Delft, The Netherlands
Tel.: 31 15 2782226
        Let your thoughts meander towards a sea of ideas.


Leo Minnigh <>

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