Episode 1: “Spark of Civilization”

A long time ago, in a galaxy called the Milky Way . . .

OK, so maybe that’s not the opening line of the new National Geographic series—but it sure felt like it should have been. This series, titled Origins: The Journey of Humankind, looks at what the producers consider key turning points in human history, both those which are documented historically and those hypothesized from a supposed evolutionary past. This first episode, “Spark of Civilization,” examines how the discovery and use of fire has transformed human history in multiple ways. Although most of this particular episode dealt with known historical events, there were quite a few which were pure speculation and from an obvious human evolutionary slant. In fact the opening line by the narrator/host Jason Silva left no doubt that human evolution from an ape-like ancestor was the starting assumption moving forward.

“Fire: no single tool in the human arsenal explains our existence more than fire. From an animal like any other to the dominant species on earth because we figured out how to steal from the heavens and harness the power of the sun.” Just a little later, Jason asked the big question: “How did we get here?” “How did Homo sapiens go from swinging tree to tree, naked apes on a rock floating in space, to walking on the surface of the moon?”

Fire and Ice

Well, the question doesn’t hang in the air too long before we’re whisked back to “12,000 BC,” somewhere in the forests of Eurasia. While we would certainly debate the date postulated here, the scenery is clearly meant to portray mankind during the Ice Age, which we would pinpoint as the first few hundred years after the Flood (for round number’s sake, let’s say approximately 2,000 BC). Mankind is portrayed as primitive, a tribe running in fear from a pack of hyenas. (It seems to me that long-furred wolves would have been a more obvious choice for what appears to be snow-covered taiga-like forests than shorter-furred hyenas, but that’s just a minor complaint). It is only by having a torch (which briefly goes out and must be restarted) that the tribe is able to fend off the vicious pack.

Richard Wrangham (PhD) author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, makes several appearances throughout the episode and stated on film, “Animals hunt, animals make tools, but only humans have mastered fire. This was the first great breakthrough that enabled humans to separate ourselves from the other apes.” Wrangham’s cooking theory is also endorsed and promoted in this episode.

Later we see this same tribe attempt to steal food from another tribe. But they are caught in the act, and, instead of being punished, are invited to stay and eat some cooked meat around a fire. One of the tribeswomen is pregnant and is obviously having a difficult time. We then hear the standard human evolutionary spiel that fire enabled us to cook food, which made it softer, which gave us more free time (4–5 fewer hours per day of chewing), which also drove our biology to develop smaller guts and bigger brains. This in turn is supposedly why childbirth became more difficult and painful, and forced humans to help each other. As the story goes, this led to social cooperation, language, empathy, and sharing—in other words a sense of community grew out of fire.

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