On Firepower 🔥
Sioux Tipi Campsite in Roxbury, New York (Photo: Taylor Morgan)
Recently Dominica and I packed the essentials, hiked into the woods in upstate New York, and stayed in a Sioux tipi for 3 days. This experience underscored the fundamental importance of shelter, highlighted the power of the flame, emboldened my adventurer spirit, and, with a flourish, infused in me a profound appreciation of our ancestors who conquered their natural fears in order to elevate mankind. It was a revelatory experience to say the least.
Watching the fire at the center of the abode, I noticed the fickle nature of the flame. It danced this way and that in the same manner as one of those whacky, waving inflatable, arm-flailing tube men. It flickered unpredictably, ignited in a moment, and snuffed out in an instant. Wielding the flame is difficult. However, if the timbers are assembled in the shape of a tipi, something wonderful happens. The tips of three charred timbers will unite and stay lit like a torch. I prodded one burning tip of timber so that it touched the other two and they ignited with a “woosh!” The flame slowly crawled down the diagonal pieces of wood, burning the brightest as the fire ate into the core. It’s as if the wood gave a final hoorah before handing the torch over to the next shining timber.
I can only imagine how much reverence ancient mankind must have had for fire. It was a thing worthy of worship, a piece of the sun that we could wield, a light in the darkest night, and warmth in the coldest months. No wonder the Sioux people built a temple around it and called it home.
This experience made a few things abundantly clear about the Sioux structure:
1.) The tipi is perfectly engineered to stoke the flame.
2.) It protects the flame from outside elements, minimizing the amount of fire-tending needed.
3.) It encapsulates the flame’s heat, keeping the occupiers of the refuge warm.
4.) The conical shape acts as a funnel for the smoke, expelling the exhaust. from the vent at its apex and warding off any curious and nefarious critters that might happen upon the camp site.
All of these incredible feats of engineering saved the makers/occupies of these abodes countless hours in the daily fire creation and curation process.
The ability of our ancestors to see fire as an agent of change, to harness that agent, and to apply it to great works is what got them out of the wilderness, both literally and metaphorically. It’s what put us on a trajectory to outpace Natural Law. It was our first major, technological breakthrough. It greatly changed the course of our species’ evolution and destiny.
Perhaps that first encounter with cooked meat was an accident. Maybe a small band of nomads traipsing through an area of a recent wildfire noticed the charred remains of an animal on the ashy, forest floor. To this band of nomadic hunter/gatherers this would have been a delicious and easily edible boon that could feed many in the tribe. Whatever the origin story, the outcome was clear: Man realized that eating meat that had been charred over an open flame was safer, healthier, and more delicious.
Some enterprising member of the tribe, mentally stringing together the events that led to this savory meal (random forest fire = cooked meat) must have thought, “Wow! This meat is way better than that raw stuff. We should make fire and cook our meat all the time.” Through trial and error that’s exactly what humans did. They eventually learned to quell their fear of the flame, make fire, and cook meat.
This newfound fire-diet also had another affect. Over the course of ensuing generations, as a result of not having to munch on tough, raw meat, humans’ mandibles grew smaller. This change allowed our brains to grow larger, our intelligence to increase, and our problem-solving capacity to become more acute. The key to unlocking human success, knowledge, and power was fire.
The light that we harnessed and wielded, protected and differentiated us from the other beasts that roamed the planet, but it would also have another lasting effect. It freed our minds for greater pursuits (beyond just mere survival). Fire gave our ancestors the space and time to write, think, and grow. From this one technology, culture and knowledge keeping was born. It began with word-of-mouth story-telling. The tribe would gather around the fire and the elder would spin stories of the tribe’s beginning, journey, and future. This method of record-keeping eventually gave way to other, more permanent methods. It was etched on cave walls, scratched onto papyrus, codified, and kept safe.
In Greek mythology, it’s said that Prometheus was punished greatly by the gods for the act of bringing fire to mankind. Why? Simply put, it gives us an edge on the competition. The Olympian deities may say what they will about Prometheus, but he’s alright in my book. Indeed…
Wise and truthful was that ancient muse,
Who spurned the gods through a fiery ruse.
Sparking revolution in the form a thought,
It spoke, “Fire is power. Forget that not.”
Engendering the advent of mankind,
Was this inspired thought from the divine:
“The pillars of the human world are three,
And they are the trifecta stilts of the tipi.”
Fire is what allowed mankind to flourish: to pioneer, to explore, to create. Without it we would be a lost and lonely species in the wilderness. It allowed us to push back against the darkness and to grow our sphere of existence. Even today we equate the physical property of fire with emotional and behavioral qualities like — drive, ambition, and desire — all things that propel us forward and motivate us to take action.
If there is a lesson from the story of the discovery of fire and the subsequent human advancements, then it is this:
Bias towards action. Through trial and error we make progress.