Comment realized by Alain Beltran, Senior Research Fellow, French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).
Throughout the long prehistoric period, humans could only just rely on their own physical strength for survival. But their resourcefulness, inventiveness and adaptability eventually gave them some key advantages in somewhat hostile environments. Thanks to their use of fire, better weapons and group mentality, humans were able to survive and conquer new territories to become masters of their own fate. The novel La Guerre du Feu (The Quest for Fire) and the subsequent movie adaptation attempt to recreate this period that we know so little about. Humans’ discovery of fire, on the other hand, has long featured in the arts and even inspired the founding myth of Prometheus.
A “Novel of Prehistoric Times”
Just over a century ago, the relatively prolific author J.H. Rosny aîné (the Elder) wrote what is probably the best-known work of fiction about prehistory, The Quest for Fire (1909-1911). It was part of a series of “novels of prehistoric times”, including Helgvor du Fleuve Bleu, Nomaï and Les Xipehuz. Rosny was a pseudonym for Joseph Henri Boex, an author of Belgian origin who lived from 1856 to 1940. He often worked alongside his brother, Rosny jeune (the Younger). As well as their novels set in the prehistoric period, the two brothers also wrote futuristic science fiction. Although we now know the early 20th century theories about prehistory referenced in The Quest for Fire to be outdated, the novel was very influential not only as a work of fiction but also as inspiration for scholars passionate to learn more about how our distant ancestors lived. Rosny the Elder was for a time very close to Émile Zola and the naturalist movement, and this can be seen in the novel’s narrative style. Darwinism also had a strong influence on Rosny the Elder’s writing. While The Quest for Fire depicts a savage fight for survival, it also shines a spotlight on the beginnings of altruism, a spirit of scientific inquiry, love, and the drive to perpetuate the human race. In short, it describes the birth of civilization from primitive times.
The Quest for Lost Fire
The storyline is fairly simple in itself. Set around 80,000 years ago, the novel describes how the Oulhamr tribe of just over 100 people are fleeing from the worst disaster imaginable: “the Fire was dead”. This Fire (with a capital F) “had powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output... to chase away the black lion and the yellow”; its “red fangs [...] protected man against the whole vast world”; it “drew a delicious odor from meat; by it the points of spears were made hard, and hard stone could be split”; “Fire was father, guardian and savior”. An enemy tribe has destroyed the cages in which the Oulhamrs kept the fire; and the Oulhamrs know how to keep a fire burning but not how to start one. So three seasoned warriors are sent on a quest to find fire and bring it back to the tribe. The men’s mission is fraught with adventures, where they must fight off ferocious animals and hostile tribes. Stealing a torch proves useless, as they are unable to rekindle the flame. However, they notice that some tribes know how to keep fire burning: “in a hollow in the earth he came upon the cage in which the man-eaters maintained their fire. It was a sort of nest of bark reinforced with flat stones put together with crude skill and patient, solid work. A little flame scintillated in it still. [...] The Kzams’ cage was composed of a triple layer of schist held together on the outside by oak bark. It was tied by flexible little branches, and a cleft allowed it to be carried easily. These cages required constant vigilance. It was necessary to protect the flame against rain and winds, to take care that it did not grow too small or enlarge beyond certain limits fixed by millennial experience, and to renew the bark often.” Further on, they encounter a herd of mammoths who are keeping their distance: “For they knew Fire! They had seen it in the savanna and the forest, when lightning struck; it had chased them, making terrifying crackling sounds; its breath burned their flesh, its teeth pierced their tough skin; the elder mammoths remembered how that terrible thing had seized hold of their fellows and swallowed them up. And so it was with fear and foreboding that they watched the flame around which those small vertical beasts stood.” The three men’s homeward journey is just as dangerous as the first half of their quest. But, on the way, they meet the “Thin Men”, who teach them how to light a fire (“the Thin Men had imprisoned the fire in the stones”) (Part 3, Chapter 5). This tribe also uses a projector, or spear-thrower, for hunting, as it allows them to attack from a distance. At the end, having succeeded in their mission, each Oulhamr feels “that he had just won something more potent than any of his ancestors had possessed and that now the fire would be forever his” (Part 3, Chapter 6). For although the fire the warriors bring back is “a little red glow, a humble light that a child could crush with a stone”, the tribe knows “the immense strength that was going to spurt from this feeble being. Panting and mute, frightened of seeing it die out, they fed their eyes on its image” (Part 3, Chapter 11).
A Successful Film Adaptation
While a novel allows readers to imagine their own version of the characters, events and landscapes based on their knowledge and beliefs, a movie is quite different. Recreating the court of Versailles is difficult enough, but prehistory is particularly problematic because, apart from a scattering of sites and traces, there is not much on which to base imaginings of how our distant ancestors lived. In 1981, Jean-Jacques Annaud took on the challenge of adapting The Quest for Fire for the big screen. The result, Quest for Fire, is undoubtedly the best-known film set in prehistoric times, a little-represented period which is otherwise often portrayed through generalized caricatures. The movie was also a commercial success. Its plot largely follows the novel’s narrative, but is condensed in places. The characters’ quest takes on an initiation-story dimension: the men – and all humankind along with them – must learn, discover, and communicate in order to survive. Fire is the first step in this learning process. As with any movie, Quest for Fire has only two hours in which to tell its story – in this case, humankind’s evolution toward knowledge, technology and science. Shot in Scotland, Canada and Kenya, the film goes to great lengths to “recreate” the period, with members of the different tribes speaking their own language, incomprehensible to listeners, devised by writer Anthony Burgess. However, scientists were not involved in the making of the movie; a large part of the scientific community does not believe that there was ever a quest for fire, since by the period in question humans would already have known how to light a fire for quite some time. The film was criticized for showing the coexistence of different groups of humans (Homo erectus, Neanderthal and Homo sapiens) whose paths probably never actually crossed, but this stretch of the truth was important for the movie, as the plot depends on the different groups sharing their knowledge. The condensed timeline can be very abrupt: tens of thousands of years are overlooked in the interests of building up dramatic tension. Furthermore, the idea of fire being humans’ only means for survival is a myth, since the very first humans were able to manage without it. The savagery of the Oulhamrs (Ulam in the English version of the film) is also an exaggeration – at that time, humans were already burying their dead, for example – and the spear-thrower, a decisive weapon, would not have appeared before Solutrean times, 20,000 years ago. Again, though, the constraints of cinema are not always the same as those of the novel, much less those of academic science.
Fire: More Than Just Energy
Nomadic prehistoric humans relied above all on their physical strength. Fire and hunting weapons, however, enhanced their energy potential. Along with tools for hunting, the discovery of fire was a huge technological leap for humans, and represented more than just a flame: “Fire was truly a driving force in hominization. It provides light and prolongs daytime in spite of night; it allowed humans to venture into caves. It provides warmth and prolongs summer in spite of winter; it allowed humans to conquer cooler areas of the planet. It can be used to cook food and therefore help prevent parasitic diseases. It improves the production of tools by hardening the points of spears. But, above all, it creates a sense of community” (Henry de Lumley, 2004). Fire had many consequences for humans. Being able to cook food, for example, undoubtedly affected the way human’s teeth and stomach developed. To light fires and keep them burning, our ancestors would have used flint and iron ore (never two flints – a common misconception), dry twigs and wood. Another known method is to create friction by rubbing two pieces of wood together, but the wood that would have been used has not survived to the present day due to the humid climate. Since there were so few humans in terms of the land they covered, collecting enough wood (V. Smil calculated that each human would need between 100 and 150 kilograms of wood per year) would not have been a problem. They ate a great deal of meat, however (between 1 and 1.5 kilograms per day), which meant that they favored larger animals over smaller species.
In the novel and film, the tribe searching for fire also discovers the spear-thrower (a much later invention, as mentioned above). The spear-thrower is thought to have been one of the first methods of enhancing physical strength with technology. These weapons acted as a lever arm and consisted of a rod about 50 centimeters long, with one end often made of carved bone (of which some remnants have been found) and the rest of wood. Hunters would affix a dart or spear to the device and make a rapid throwing movement to shoot, resulting in a projectile that could travel 20 to 30 meters, with better aim and three times the speed of a manual throw. With this technique, hunters could hit animals more easily; and the method was probably also used in fights before the invention of the shield. In either case, its invention was a turning point.
Prometheus, the Fire Thief: The Myth That Inspired Countless Writers
Fire, as such a significant part of human life, has given rise to myths as old as time. It has had a role to play in a number of organized religions well after prehistoric times: the Vestal Virgins in ancient Rome, for example, were in charge of guarding the sacred fire. However, the myth of Prometheus has probably been the best-known and most widely told story since ancient times. Prometheus stole fire from the gods, who punished him by sending an eagle to feed on his liver. The story can be interpreted in different ways, but it is most often considered to represent the dawn of humanity, as it seizes a vital tool for its future development. In this way, Prometheus sacrificed himself so that humans could become what they were meant to be thanks to fire. Hesiod and tragedian Aeschylus both told the myth in this way, with Aeschylus’ hero in Prometheus Bound declaring:
“Blessings, that on man I lavished, have involved me in this fate,
And for that in a hollow fennel-stalk I sought and stored and stole the fount of flame,
Whence men all arts have learned, a potent help.
So well my punishment befits my crime –
Pilloried in these chains – my roof the sky.”
Prometheus is a symbol of rebellion as well as of hubris, the ancient Greek notion of humans’ foolish temptation to challenge the gods; for if humans were to depend on science and technology to progress, this reliance could also work against them. This myth has fascinated philosophers and writers since ancient times, from Plato and Diogenes to English philosopher Hobbes, German writer Goethe, English novelist Mary Shelley with Frankenstein (also known as “The Modern Prometheus”) and French writers André Gide and Albert Camus. There have also been a number of musical interpretations. For humans, fire has always been a symbol of destiny, through rebellion, enlightenment and suffering.
Find out more:
- -A novel: The Quest for Fire is available in several editions, sometimes alongside other narratives set in prehistory.
- -A film: Quest for Fire (1981), directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, can be viewed online, on DVD, and occasionally on the television.
- -A useful website about prehistory: the French site Hominidés, les évolutions de l’homme (“Hominids, the evolution of humans”) is an invaluable resource – http://www.hominides.com/index.php. Some prehistory museums offer practical demonstrations, such as spear-throwing (e.g., the Tarascon-sur-Ariège museum).
- -Prometheus: a number of plays and written works have been devoted to this symbol of humanity as a dominant force, including the play Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus (525 456 B.C.E.) and Prométhée aux enfers (“Prometheus in the Underworld”) (1946) by Camus (1913 1960), which are two key works among many others.