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Fire (or the ability to create it) is often cited as the spark of civilization, it is so revered that its inventors are legendary figures in mythology.

Practically speaking, fire can:

  • Keep you warm, expanding your habitat to colder climates
  • Preserve, and extract more nutrients from food
  • Serve as an effective defense against predators

It doesn't sound like much but when humans had little to no technology, this would have been a great boon.

Suppose however that humans never developed fire-making skills (or much later, after the development of other technologies made it trivial). What effect would that have had on humans?

  • Was it crucial - civilization would likely not have appeared without it?
  • Was it very important - without which our development would have been delayed, 1000 years? 10000 years?
  • Was it not very important - not as important as tools, or domestication?
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closed as too broad by mechalynx, Tim B, bowlturner, Monica Cellio, kaine Oct 2 '14 at 17:21

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • $\begingroup$ Is this broad type of speculative/alternate history question offtopic for this beta? If the question was more along the lines of "How would a fireless world develop civilization", or "What would cause humans to never discover fire before forming civilization", I think it'd be more appropriate. Maybe I'm being too harsh here. Thoughts, anybody? Cite this meta post: meta.worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/52/… $\endgroup$ – neph Sep 18 '14 at 6:12
  • $\begingroup$ @kikjezrous I agree, it's an interesting question with good answers but as it stands it's too broad. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 2 '14 at 13:45
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There are some theories that cooking increases the nutritional value of food (or the range of nutritious foods available) so much that humans would not have been able to develop our current level of intelligence without it. But that's speculative. Let's also assume you live in a climate where you can survive year-round.

Fire is a necessary stepping stone to a lot of other technologies. Without fire you'd never get metalworking, pottery, or glass. The materials that you could use include:

  • knapped stone tools
  • sun-dried adobe
  • wood and vines (but only what you can fell/shape using stone tools)
  • animal products including hide, bone, sinew, horn, fur, and hair (though cleaning and tanning are harder without fire)

I believe you can make papyrus or parchment and ink without fire, so it's possible that you could get writing, and a lot of the intellectual developments that follow from that.

Agriculture would be harder without fire because almost every civilization relies on cereals or tubers that need to be cooked. But you could potentially get around that with fermentation, especially if you had some way to make warm water (I guess keeping it at body temperature is pretty good, like the Alaskan gold miners who kept their prized sourdough cultures bundled up in their bedrolls with them).

It's hard for me to imagine a civilization that could get very far without fire. On the other hand, our civilization's penchant for burning stuff might end up killing us all, so maybe the fireless civilization would eventually surpass us, however slowly they move.

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I think a society could get on without fire if there are enough natural heat sources that can be safely used (say, some predictable vulcanism). On the other hand, any such heat source will tend to set things on fire, so maybe it would be inevitable that people would learn to handle fire even in that case.

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Without fire there wouldn't have been external warmth or cooking. Civilization would have formed to some extent without it. People still would have gathered in towns. People didn't gather in towns to get around fires, they gathered for safety and for trade.

Most starch foods for different cultures require cooking before they are edible.

Fire was the first source of energy that humans could control. Fire was important to the creation of the steam engine, and some other early machines. Fire also allowed the manipulation of metal, another important advance in technology.

I think without fire, technological advancement would have been severely slowed, though civilization may still have existed. We would be possibly thousands of years behind in advancements.

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I would tend to agree with the others. With out fire so many of our technologies would be impossible to get to. I would assume that to get very far without fire a different energy source would be needed. The next best bet would be electricity, but that would require a lot of coincidences to come about, making a simple battery is pretty easy but for it to be really useful you'd still need some decently refined metals.

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  • $\begingroup$ That's a good point. The question then is whether low-tech electricity can bootstrap you to any other advances that will ultimately let you craft new materials or make other discoveries. $\endgroup$ – octern Sep 18 '14 at 17:15
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Crucial to the development of civilization? No.

Much of stone-age Mesopotamian technology (irrigation canals, sun-dried brick, wood and stone tools) was not dependent on fire. You could certainly have a primitive agrarian civilization without fire -- or a city-based hunter-gatherer society if you've got something like the Pacific Northwest's salmon runs to provide high natural food density.

Technology is a different matter. You might be able to substitute some other source of high-density energy (lava?), but even if you do, the discovery of fire is likely to be an accidental outcome. The ignition temperatures of common materials such as dried reeds or cotton is well below the temperature needed for many interesting things such as the smelting of copper or iron ore.

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Well, humans could and did develop fire far before they developed civilization. In fact, pre-humans had fire, as in Neandethals 200,000 years ago, and even earlier, perhaps 500,000 to 1.5 million years ago, by pre-Neandethals (Homo Erectus) see for example this NY Times article. I don't think there are any aboriginal people who don't use fire, and if not it's by choice; it's not because they don't know about it.

I would say that a world where there are human-like people would only not have fire if it were not very possible, due to some sort of physical limits. For example, the atmosphere might be somehow breathable but not combustible, and/or materials available being fire-proof.

Otherwise, it's extremely easy to learn, and extremely useful, even to pre-humans. If it weren't possible, technology would have developed very differently. Other sources of great heat that did exist in such an environment, may have taken on much greater importance.

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