As evolved as humans claim to be, our caveman origins still resurface every now and again, and nowhere is this more evident than in our draw towards fire.
Whether isolated in the middle of the wilderness with just a small flame burning, or gathered around a barbecue in suburbia, our primeval instincts to huddle close to a fire’s warmth and light are inescapable. Sure, there’s a comfort factor involved when the conditions are cold, but I think there’s more to it than that.
I cannot even begin to imagine the change in fortunes the initial harnessing of fire would have brought to a small Neanderthal tribe. I’m sure it wasn’t quite as simple as a light-bulb moment in which one day there was no source of warmth and the next someone had invented matches and everyone was cooking over a nice toasty fire-pit; no, the incorporation of fire into human lives would have been far more gradual, with a long history of small revelatory moments revealing more and more about this absolutely life-changing element (element being used in the Aristotle sense). Although come to think of it, maybe that early tribe would have lacked the intellectual capacity to be truly reflective and appreciative of the gift they now possessed.
We take so many conveniences in modern life for granted, with our easy access to fire being one of them. With the simple flick of a lighter we can light the oven or get a nice blaze going in the living room on a cold winter’s evening. Firelighters make sure things can be up and running properly within a few minutes. Most of us don’t have to harvest our own fuel; we can simply go out and buy a pack of wood.
Thousands of years ago – and still today in some of the more primitive communities in the far-flung corners of the world – I imagine there would have been more reverence towards the humble flames.
The ability to create fire out of nothing would have almost certainly afforded the doer a certain tribal status, and the simple fact that the fire’s creation took labour would have endowed people with a respect towards it; not necessarily as something to be feared because of its power to destroy, but more in the way that we are more inclined to treasure things we worked hard for, more so than those we got for free.
During the night, when all manner of terrors might be lurking just outside the camp or the cave, the glow of the fire marked an area in which at least the illusion of safety existed, and communities could gather. It was around this source of warmth, feeling comfort in the presence of their tribe, that languages would have slowly begun to evolve, and story-telling would have developed. Humanity, it could be argued, essentially got a kick-start around the fire.
And I imagine many of the same reasons that our ancient ancestors used to gather around the fireplace are the same reasons we still do so today, although many of the reasons are buried so deeply in our genetic subconscious that we are unaware of them.
The tangibles like warmth and light are really the superficial reasons that overlay the deeper feelings of safety and community that fireside gathering brings with it.
This is why we eat under the stars at Londolozi at every chance we get, with a fire blazing in the centre of the boma. Yes, the ambience is great, in winter the fire’s warmth is especially welcoming, and it provides a central gathering spot for guests and staff alike, but I’m sure the real reason we feel such satisfaction after a night sitting around the fire is simply what I’ve mentioned earlier: we feel safer, we feel accepted, we feel comfort. There’s no need to speak; one can stare into the flames without the need to say anything, whether sitting with friends or complete strangers.
And the distant roar of a lion or the cough of a leopard from the nearby Sand River will simply reinforce that inherent feeling that we can’t quite put our finger on; that a small fire with a few people gathered around it – more so than ever when in the African wilderness – can feel like home.