Let us begin with the nuclei of things; for how to examine matters whose beginnings are unknown — inquiries would hang as in a void and we should be raising a building without foundations. Let us therefore enter the sphere of proto-history and prehistory, where numerous issues have been mishandled in the interest of various theories (the meditative method!). Some of these have indeed already been discarded, but smoke still rises from them.
The actual genesis of the human race does not belong to the sphere of knowledge about civilisation. Discussion of the issue of polygeny or monogeny, of one or many cradles of man60 lies outside our study. Three Poles have just lately brought weighty evidence of the universality of the tradition of the Flood, and so indirectly for monogeny. In 1923 Christianity reached the Botocudos, regarded as the most savage savages. The first group-baptism was performed there by Father J. Kominek, who was educated at the Lazarist Fathers’ schools at Kleparz in Cracow and subsequently a member of the Wilno house. This priest states that the Botocudos have a tradition about the Flood.61 In other parts of Brazil fifteen hundred kilometres away, the travellers M. B. Lepecki and Mieczysław Fularski62 found the same. But more than one good brain will still pursue this question as now it appears that human stocks differ in the chemical composition of their blood.
The study of civilisation begins with the question whether man was from the beginning a gregarious being, living in groups of some size. More recent study has shaken this belief. Erazm Majewski also dealt it a blow, putting forward at the same time the reasonable suggestion that as there had been no gregariousness there had never been the “herd communism” which the elder Morgan postulated.63
The history of mankind is divided, in our opinion, into two opposed epochs: pre-fire and post-fire. These are the epochs of all epochs. Wherever the discovery of fire reached, it radically transformed conditions of life. Above all feeding improved. Let us remember that so far no report has ever appeared of any people, ancient or contemporary, who ate fresh raw meat. In many countries of the world, and by some tribes in Ruthenia and Serbia, it is dried in wind and sun.64 Eskimos and Chukchi eat raw reindeer and fish, but not fresh and only when cut into pieces us a kind of frozen conserve; everything else they cook.65 Similarly the Mongols prepared uncooked meat in brine, adding various roots, while the poorer among them use garlic.66 And to this day “in Montenegro mutton and goat-meat, cut into pieces and previously kept for some time in a container with salt (just as in Polesie) is then taken out and hung in the hut above the hearth”.67 Since primitive man did not know how to organise stores nor to make meat edible, and did not eat raw fresh meat, he did not eat meat at all. He became carnivorous only after discovering the properties of lire. There is even an interesting account of this among the Guayaqui of Eastern Paraguay.68
Pre-fire man could feed himself only on certain plants and their fruits, edible raw. He was primarily herbivorous. Edible herbs are numerous.69Even today, in lean years, pulp, bark and leaves are used as food. Pine-bark and woodland roots represent an improved method of feeding. A classical instance are the kernels of the pinion in the Brazilian jungles, where it is eaten by almost every creature, and the ripening season is one of satiety and abundance for Indians, Caboclos, colonists, wild pigs, racoons, cattle, birds and the most various forest creatures.70 The Guayaqui of the Paraguayan Chaco eat the pith of the pindo palm which they cut out with a stone hatchet. All Indians have been hunters for centuries, but in addition most have not ceased to be herbivorous. In the Chaco “Indians know very well where and when fruits ripen, and plan their travels so as to arrive at the right time for fruit picking”.71
Pre-fire man could only get beyond vegetarianism by lapping warm blood. He could not hunt, having no instruments with which to attack animals stronger than himself. He could only watch predatory animals hunt and wait in a hiding-place until the victor went off and he could then enjoy lapping blood from the remains of the defeated animal.
Such feasts were, however, exceptional, and the daily diet was herbivorous. Thus it seems that earliest man was a woodland creature, an inhabitant of forests. Such are even now those most primitive of the primitive, the African pygmies, and such were until lately the Ainu, with an economy recalling “the forest economy of our ancestors”,72 and still using stone hatchets. The Guayaqui of eastern Paraguay easily climb tall trees and jump like monkeys from branch to branch.73
But forests too full of beasts of prey were unsuited for habitation by completely defenceless men, and so were swampy forests with their swarms of mosquitoes and other biting and disease-carrying insects. So they fled from them into the mountains, and generally towards temperate areas. It also seems more probable that the cradle of mankind was in a temperate than in a hot zone. In no case could it have been in a cold zone (wherever they then were in the world), for in that event early man would never have become acquainted with fire, which he could only have come to know through nature and a cold zone would not provide.
This is all that can be said of the pre-fire epoch — which was perhaps as long as the post-fire down to our own days. Fire, increasing the sources of nourishment, also increased man’s degree of security, protecting him against marauding beasts which do not approach flames. This beneficial side of fire is universally known and recognised, but there is insufficient realisation of the protection which smoke lent against small enemies more troublesome and dangerous than the large predatory animals. Since this perhaps sounds improbable. I shall give some examples.
The discussion is of mosquitoes, gnats, earth fleas, tsetse flies, the South American polvori, mbarigni, pernilongi, piques, bicho de pe, etc. Now the plague of biting and disease-carrying insects reaches strangely far north. In Northern Norway, in the land of Arctic night, at a fishing-ground relatively distant from the land, “clouds of flies and mosquitoes hung in the air. It was necessary to smoke all the time to save oneself from their bites”.74 This is still a trifle compared with the case of other inhabitants of the frozen North, the present-day Yakuts, who, sometimes with expanses of unclaimed land around them, settle pressed close together and getting in each other’s way, because on fresh land they would not be able to cope with the mosquitoes which would “eat up the cattle”. In the most painful season, from the first days of June to the beginning of July, the Yakuts “avoid going out of the house and sit in rooms full of acrid smoke”. For mosquitoes are “indisputably able to suffocate and eat up a man who loses the ability to kindle a fire in summer”.75
In Central Asia, on the Amu-Darya, in the spring gnats “stick to a man so that one has to sit all the time in thick smoke” — and in summer the huntsmen go into the mountains.76 Did the original inhabitants not do the same? As soon as born, calves must be wrapped immediately in blankets or rushes. Flies bite through the skin of wild animals and lay their eggs in the wounds, the resulting insects biting into the muscles.
In the African Wasagara country it is impossible even today to keep hens or cattle because of the omnipresence of the tsetse fly.77
Among the Malagasy “many are so crippled and wounded (by the African ground-flea) that they differ little from lepers”.78 In Argentina Guarani hunters do not land on the islets of the river Parana “because of the gigantic swarms of mosquitoes and gnats”.79
Even now in out-of-the-way corners of Polesie cattle die from mosquitoes and gnats, their nostrils, ears and windpipes choked with them. The shirts of reapers grow bloodstained, until “after a few days the bloodstains run together into one whole, and the shirt, because of the dried blood becomes a certain protection”.80
Thus we see that it is hardly an exaggeration to claim that the value of smoke as a deterrent against insects is perhaps even greater than that of fire as a protection against wild beasts.
Modern travellers, provided with means of defence, complain of being eaten alive by mosquitoes. Where fire and smoke are insufficient shield, primitive autochthons like the Andaman Negritos go naked and cover their bodies with mud, while the Shilluk on the White Nile use excrement and urine as a protective agent.81 The once densely populated Roman campagna turned into a desert when drainage was neglected and the land became marshy. And perhaps the reader will not smile incredulously when we say that mosquitoes more than once decided mediaeval German-Italian wars, for armies of Arnulf, Otto II, Otto III, Conrad II, Frederick Barbarossa, Henry VI and Henry VII disintegrated because of an unknown disease — malaria. All this with fire available.
Fire did, however, at least help to limit the plague to proportions not exceeding the endurance of primitive man, thereby preparing habitable lands. It is assumed that man has known how to kindle fire since the beginning of the Palaeolithic period.82 The words “in general” should be added, for the Andaman islanders (pygmies) do not know how to light a fire and have no expression for it, but “with great care maintain ever-burning hearths and explain the origin of fire by a religious myth”. This was the position in 1922. “The Andaman islanders would thus constitute the single exception now known”.83 (It had been universally assumed that there was no longer a people on earth which did not possess the art of kindling fire.)
It is worth noticing that among primitive peoples there are now nine different ways of making a fire,84 and it may be that there were other methods the tradition of which has perished. The conclusion would suggest itself from this multiplicity that Prometheuses appeared in more than one place; but that question does not belong to our subject.
A man who kept going a fire (kindled by natural forces) stood high above others. His hearth was safer, more populous and more prosperous. So he guarded his property. And after this property followed immovable property, the property of the space occupied by the hearth. Facts known from the history of Iceland point to this conclusion. In the tenth to twelfth centuries a curious symbolism, worth the notice of ethnologists, was observed when land was taken into possession. The land was surrounded by fire (fara eldi um landit): the boundaries of the whole area taken over were circled by burning fires in such a way that the flames from one were visible at both those adjoining it. The whole boundary of the area was thus marked by fires.
It must be assumed that the proto-historic owner of the fire multiplied it himself, setting up new hearts in the neighbourhood. It is easy to understand that he placed them in such a way as to have a view of his property, so that he could see at least two neighbouring fires from every point. Clearly all were his property and he benefits from all belonging to him, so that the settlers gathering round them were dependent on his permission and on the conditions he imposed. In brief: the areas surrounded by a man’s fires became his property.
Was not the Icelandic custom a survival of this state of affairs? According to this custom, the first man to light a fire on land became its owner. Newly arrived settlers lit fires at the mouths of rivers in the area they proposed to occupy. Later, as usual, the symbol was abbreviated, and the area in question was ridden round, burning torch in hand.85
Ownership of an area acquired by fire appears to be the seed of the very idea of immovable property. Those not in possession of fire obviously strove to acquire it. Was not violence and fraud used to that end? Were the first attacks and assaults, the first expeditions and battles not for fire, about fire? A man who knew how to kindle a flame by himself was a potentate.
It is known that flames not only give protection against beasts of prey, but attract at the same time a number of animals of more peaceful disposition which tolerate fire. The acquisition of the domestic animal was a result of the possession of a hearth. And when later on various tools were discovered and hunting began, it could be planned and turned to advantage only in conjunction with the hearth. Without fire, hunting would have been futile, since it was only fire which made the hunted animal edible. Nevertheless, the hypothesis about so-called feasting partnerships being the oldest form of association, whence the further hypothesis that all civilisation originates with primitive hunting man, must be rejected. Before the discovery of fire, flesh was not eaten and not hunted. Fire made it possible to keep meet for several days, so that it did not have to be eaten immediately. Moreover the hunter had his own family to help with the eating: feasting partnerships have not been discovered among hunting peoples, not even in the case of those among whom big game are hunted by several men: the flesh of the animal is divided, but communal feasting on the spot is not arranged.
Thus fire became the seed of the kitchen and the larder, and round it food was increasingly good and plentiful. It was also the seed of authority and power. The population round the hearths grew denser, groupings began and the lord of the hearths became ruler of men. The oldest communities took shape, based on a hierarchy, on the inequality between the lord extending shelter and those who sought it in dependence on his favour or disfavour.
Obviously the trend must have been towards every man possessing his own hearth. When social development reached this stage, the hierarchically based communities formed round fires disappeared, the oldest authorities disappeared. Their place was taken by other hearth communities, now based exclusively on the tie of blood, when every father of a family could found his own fireside.
This was the consequence of the spread of discoveries about different means of kindling fire. It was not, however, a development which occurred everywhere. A fireside of one’s own is even today in some places the privilege of superior authority. As Kubary testifies, on the Palau Islands in Micronesia only the obokul or headman may possess his own hearth.86
And so the organisation of collective life begins with fire. Two levels of development emerge: that of knowing how to kindle a flame and that of knowing only how to keep it going. The first led to further development, the other to standstill — as in the case of the Andaman pygmies. Those knowing how to make fire then divided according to whether knowledge remained the privilege of certain persons or became general. And again those peoples who did not succeed in making fire common properly failed to develop. Collective life was further differentiated where it became possible for every man to acquire a hearth as his personal property, with ownership of the land marked out by fire or fires following. Still further differentiation occurred if the fire was made use of to keep domestic animals.
In both periods, whether possession of fire was exceptional or general, these fireside communities were hierarchical. After the hierarchy of fire-ownership came a second hierarchy, that of the clan — of which later. The historical progress of man begins not with communism and equality, but with property and hierarchy.