Problems Related to Fire

Humans may not have been able to adjust to all of the dangers of fire. The second study, published last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that... the early use of fire might have helped spread tuberculosis by bringing people into close contact, damaging their lungs and causing them to cough.

With mathematical modeling, Rebecca Chisholm and Mark Tanaka, biologists at the University of New South Wales in Australia, simulated how ancient soil bacteria might have evolved to become infectious tuberculosis agents. Without fire, the probability was low. But when the researchers added fire to their model, the likelihood that tuberculosis would emerge jumped by several degrees of magnitude.

It is thought that tuberculosis has killed more than a billion people, possibly accounting for more deaths than wars and famines combined. Today it remains one of the deadliest infectious diseases, claiming an estimated 1.5 million lives each year.

Many experts believe tuberculosis arose at least 70,000 years ago. By then, humans were most certainly controlling fire. (Estimates of when human ancestors started regularly using fire vary greatly, but the consensus is that it was at least 400,000 years ago.)

“We realized that the discovery of controlled fire must have caused a significant shift in the way humans were interacting with each other and with the environment,” factors known to drive the emergence of infectious diseases, Dr. Chisholm said.

She and Dr. Tanaka believe that fire might have helped spread other airborne diseases, not just tuberculosis. ...

Anthropologists have speculated that inhaling smoke led to the discovery of smoking. Humans have long used fire to modify their environment and burn carbon, practices that now have us in the throes of climate change. Fire is even tied to the rise of patriarchy — by allowing men to go out hunting while women stayed behind to cook by the fire, it spawned gender norms that still exist today.

- Steph Yin, Smoke, Fire and Human Evolution, NYT, Aug. 5, 2016

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