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Fire, a universal landscaping tool

Ancient peoples might have harnessed the power of fire to modify their environment

Living off the land

In popular culture, hunter-gatherers are usually seen as “living off the land”, hunting and gathering food resources freely available in their natural environments. Anthropologists have often stressed that this is a gross oversimplification and that hunter-gatherer lifestyles vary enormously, and that all hunter-gatherers to some degree do (and most likely did) modify their environments.

Use of fire in managing national park landscape and fauna in the Netherlands, De Sallandse Heuvelrug. Photo by Jap Smits.

Fire as a tool

In their new study Fulco Scherjon, Corrie Bakels, Katharine MacDonald and Wil Roebroeks show that off-site fire use, that is the use of fire away from living spaces, is an indispensable multi-purpose tool for hunter-gatherers. Its universal usage suggests a possible deep past, challenging the idea that early humans were at the mercy of their environment. The use of off-site fire however has proven difficult to trace in the present archaeological record.


The study, published this month in Current Anthropology, provides the first broad systematic investigation into fire use in the landscapes of human foragers, with data derived from ethnographic, archaeological and historical sources. A database was created that records 231 instances of fire use in the landscape by recent and sub-recent hunter gatherers, and includes information on purpose, environment, circumstances, locality, gender, and group size.

Global phenomenon

Hunter-gatherers fired their landscapes all over the world, in all types of biomes. The only exception is the northern tundra where reindeer moss once consumed by fire renders these areas useless for reindeer and as a consequence for reindeer herding people for decades.

Young and old, males and females used fire for a wide variety of reasons: to increase the yield of vegetation, to lure, find or to drive game, to clear tracks and widen areas, to communicate, to remove garbage, to wage war as well as just for fun.


The almost universal application of fire to shape landscapes and the conspicuous absence in the archaeological record calls for new and different systematic studies of the archaeological and geological record.

Hunter-gatherer use of fire to modify the environment is a long-neglected topic, and studying the antiquity of such practices will shed new light on what constitutes a “natural” environment. Such research might reveal the origin of one of the most powerful tools for constructing our ecological niche that even today is available to man and woman alike.

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