4,000 years old wood, not gasoline: Middle Earth is not a myth

This ancient fire is 4,000 years old. And while that makes it a second-oldest fire in the world, it still pales in comparison to the oldest fire ever discovered in ancient China. As Smithsonian’s…

4,000 years old wood, not gasoline: Middle Earth is not a myth

This ancient fire is 4,000 years old. And while that makes it a second-oldest fire in the world, it still pales in comparison to the oldest fire ever discovered in ancient China.

As Smithsonian’s Michael Stokes Paul explains, teams of volunteer scientists on the Fourth Pole Expedition spent 15 months last year and this year scanning rock layers along the coastline of East Africa to help scientists get a better idea of how ancient Earth really was. And they found what they believed was the oldest fire burned some 3,600 years earlier than what had been believed before.

The smoke that came from the previously-described fire, about 3,000 years old, is the lowest-quality fire-smoke ever found in Africa. So the fires at this site are richer in oxygen and have a high energy yield. No wonder there are clearly still smoke trails: Sometime during the past 4,000 years, fire in this area likely lit the wind, sort of like what happens in the modern day, but on a larger scale.

Scientists think the origins of this firefire can be traced back to about 3,500 years ago and may be related to the Afro-Assyrian culture at the time. (So people who lived thousands of years ago were the same people who lived thousands of years ago.) The scientists haven’t found the origin of the smoke yet, but believe it may have come from a campfire or cooking range, or from burning charcoal or whatever else would have been available at the time. And the fact that it was in a fire-scarred location isn’t too exciting; maybe they should be looking for traces of the ash that once fell from the flames.

This is all extremely cool to read, but the bigger point here is that this is likely the most important fire of the past 4,000 years. A burning, outdoor fire in East Africa is going to contain far more oxygen, which means it could have been a far hotter fire. And that would mean there may have been more active conversations on the topic around the world at that time, which could have happened, say, over a beautiful platter of mung beans.

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