Lisa Heschong, a California architect with the Heschong Mahone Group, which specializes in research on building performance, doesn’t think much of firelight: “The use of fire for lighting, while romantic, is extraordinarily inefficient, energy intensive, and potentially polluting. Indoor combustion is one of the main sources of indoor air pollution, especially in the third world.” Cities like Sacramento, California, even limit wood-burning fireplaces to keep skies clearer. “In our climate,” Heschong explains, ”the presence of smoke in the winter increases the prevalence of soot, thereby reducing daylight.”
Ian Tattersall, curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History, says that some anthropologists believe that we tamed fire before we were even human. “When the first prehumans came out of the trees and moved to the African savannas,” an event Tattersall says took place about one and a half million years ago, “they were primarily fruit eaters. In order for them to make a living on the plains, they would have had to eat meat.” But with vegetarian intestines, these hominids would have had a very hard time absorbing animal protein—unless it were broken down through cooking.
Taming fire was humankind’s first and most critical step toward its mastery of the material world. About 400,000 years ago, our ancestors learned to harness the flame, setting us on the course that would lead from the stone hearths those early humans built to the modern high-efficiency catalytic woodstoves we use today. More important, though, was the capacity to selectively apply heat, a transformative power that allows us to turn dirt into metal, cold into warmth, dark into light.