Old Fire, New Fire

It is a little known fact that bat poo can play merry hell with the work of archaeologists.

Chiefly because it can spontaneously combust.

I should specify that we are talking about neolithic bat poo here. Poo from the bats living at the same time as our ancient ancestors, Homo Erectus.

Picture the scene.

The neolithic bat has a little rest stop; maybe his friends come over and join the fun. Thus develops a  pile of steaming poo which is dark, not light, and matt, not shiny; so it attracts the rays of the sun something awful.

I have no idea about the power of the sun then, compared to the power of the sun today. Was it hotter then, when it was younger, one million years ago ? Its youthful energy surges into the steaming pile, and inevitably, it bursts into flame: an exuberant celebration of the sun’s power.

Homo Erectus shuffles past on his way to find some mammoth for breakfast. Food has never been much fun, he thinks, if truth be told. Raw greasy meat: it’s a living. But there’s no passion in it. No artistry. And its all very chewy.

And then he sees the bat poo.

And his 600 cubic centimetres of brain volume may just have clocked that flame and thought: Hmmm. I fancy a well-done mammoth steak.

But one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Pan to the 21st century, where archaeologists are scratching their heads, endeavouring to divine precisely when man made the first fire.

Because bat poo throws a spanner in the works. All over the globe there is evidence of small bat-poo fires near neolithic cave-settlements, but no-one knows whether it’s man-engineered or just a lot of very enthusiastic bats in the sun.

Only at bat-poo-free sites can evidence be truly obtained: and just such a site has created a new frontrunner in the friendly international competition entitled: who made fire first?

Inscrutable China has been credited for a very long time with evidence that its early peoples made fire 400,000 years ago. The provenance of a find in Israel about 790,000 years ago is under debate: but the good neanderthals of Zhoukoudian, about 45 kilometres south-west of Bejing, left us some indisputable evidence.

Because when man cooks meat, the composition of the bones changes.

Bones are filled with hydroxylapatite. It’s what makes them strong. Ordinarily they are plate-like crystals; but when they are heated to high temperatures they change shape: to long needle- like crystals.

One look at the Chinese bones and: bingo. Someone had been having a barbecue.

So China was there at the front, carrying the ancient I Made Fire First torch, when who should put on a sprint and streak past at an alarming rate but South Africa.

The Wonderwerk Caves, in South Africa’s Northern Provinces, live up to their name, with evidence that man has been living there for more than two million years.

And earlier this year, an article was published by an international team of scientists in the Procedings of the National Academy of Sciences chronicling evidence that fire was being made and used by man a million years ago.

 Scientists found jagged ash about 100 feet from the mouth of the cave with all the right credentials to be considered man-engineered.
So South Africa is our new front-runner: and I cannot but help, today as picture her running along with a torch in her hand.
Last night a plane touched down in Cornwall, filled with miner’s lamps.
They were made of gold though: nothing less was appropriate, if you think that this fire had been kindled by a bunch of neo-Vestal Virgins at the site of the original Greek olympics.
What started with a pile of bat poo has become revered: stolen by Prometheus from Zeus, this tool which changed all our lives forever is about to be feted as part of the Olympic Games.
Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, observed dryly that it must be the first time a naked flame had been allowed on a British Airways flight since smoking was banned on planes.
The lamps lit the torch and now the flame is off round the country, destined to come within 10 miles of 95 per cent of people in the UK.
Its reception was cold and grey and very British. But I profess to hate and be bored by all sport, and a glimmer of some optimism I didn’t recognise flickered into life in my English heart.
Of course, a rugby scrum of cynicism charged in to muffle it, but it’s under there, still alive, squeaking and waiting for the bully-boys to go off at half time.
Old fire, new fire.
It will always have the power to stir us.
Picture source here
Written in response to Side View’s challenge: something old, something new, which you can find here

38 thoughts on “Old Fire, New Fire

  1. So much torch coverage… I’ve had to watch it all, with commentary “I’d rather have a grey track suit”, “Oh the white looks good on Ben, Maybe if I stuck my chest out…”, “She’s waving a lot”, “Kissing! Nobody said I got to do kissing!”. It may be a long 70 days 🙂

    1. Fiona, you have a very special interest in this, do you not? Isn’t Spurs fan involved? Should we not all be pinned to your posts for the next days, waiting for the moment the torch comes your way?

  2. I’m worse than you – not even a glimmer was raised in my sould when the flame touched down – only heard about it briefly on radio as I went to bed – sport in all its forms leaves me cold and the Olympics are a height of folly for any country to put on – and should we still be indulging in these ‘war’ games in the 21st century:) the country cannot afford them – no country can and what a magnet for the bad boys – so grumpy old lady stops now.

    But the Neolithics now they were something else weren’t they – great post and how far back can they go? oh for a time machine. must be as exciting for those folk who scratch around to keep pushing knowledge backwards as it is for the scienctists to push it foward – history grows every day

    1. It does, and our understanding of our human condition with it, Alberta 🙂 I know what you mean about the Olympics: bit concerned about the whole transport infrastructure thing….Central London civil servants working at home during the game? What IS going on?

  3. Great bit of history and archeology here Kate. I too have felt no interest in the Olympics, but a little spark has now been lit. The torch passes through here on Wednesday, so I might just might go and see

  4. Ah yes we are ahead in some things here at the tip of Africa. The Olympic flame trip is always interesting. I have often wondered how they managed the ocean crossings with it.

  5. I’ve always wished I could have been an archeologist or paleontologist. It is amazing how much we learn about ancient people, animals and dinosaurs from poop. In the USA we having living walking poop. They occupy the White House, the Senate and the House.

  6. From bat poo to the Olympic torch…..a gold medal leap if ever there was one!

    I’m absolutely not a sports person either, and I do think that, as with much else in the world today, the Olympics have tended to become just another huge commercial endeavor. That said, I’d hope that they are still an opportunity for celebration of the hard work and perseverance of the athletes, and recognition of the ways in which we are like-minded around the world.

    1. I know its important for some people, Karen: and I’m very interested to see how the publicity machine grinds into action from now on. I now realise that the Olympic torch is a huge PR exercise, and quite a clever one too: it personalises what is a vast undertaking, and makes it appeal to people on their local level. We shall see what transpires next…

  7. Hmm, I’d never heard about the spontaneous combustion of bat poo complicating the efforts to study man’s first use of fire. But since both bats and early humans tended to dwell in caves … yep, definitely a complication.

    1. Indeed. Although the bat poo needed the sunshine to combust, PT. So it could only happen outside the cave. Perhaps that’s not strictly spontaneous….it’s definitely a reason not to invent neolithic conservatories.

  8. The thought of some of these puffed-up celebrities carrying a bat-poo laden torch made me smile. I know that’s not what’s in it today, but still……

    You must go see it if it passes near you. I didn’t when the games were in Atlanta, and I always wished I had.

  9. Interesting take. I like the intermixing of bat poo and Olympic sport. Cavemen may have been ahead of their time in some aspects. You see, they may have wanted a mammoth steak, but knew that a mammoth would be difficult to track and would not stay edible for long. So they froze them. I don’t think mammoths were accidentally frozen. I think there was Caveman intent behind it. With their fire they would just heat it back up again. Primitive refrigeration.

    1. Of course: *slaps forehead* how could I have missed this vital element in man’s progress to civilisation: the deep freeze. So that’s what those mammoths were doing there….thanks for commenting, TT: looking forward to the working out of the master plan for new posts over at yours.

  10. Strangely refreshing to see a post that starts with bat poo. The torch is a wonderful symbol with fire being so emotive

  11. I wish I could do something useful, like create fire, with what Darwin contributes! I find the whole notion of two million years of man and fire truly awesome, and I really enjoyed your chronological rundown. I hope you’ll enjoy a little bit of pride at hosting the Olympics. When Los Angeles was host we went out of our way to guarantee a view of the Olympic torch and runner…I have the photos somewhere! And I understand how commercial it all is…in between years I can be quite cynical, but then when it all begins, I’m excited. If for no other reason than historical continuity…we should celebrate! Debra

  12. I had no idea bat poo had such an interesting history. I live a couple of miles from the largest urban bat colony in North America (1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats). They live under the Congress Avenue bridge (making the boat tours on that section of the river a bit smelly), eat 10,000 to 20,000 pounds of insects every night, and attract tourists. So far, no spontaneous combustion has been reported. Thank goodness.

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