Ben McNutt : How to make fire


"Fire is nothing more than the sun unwinding itself from the wood." - Richard Buckminster "Bucky" Fuller

The taming of fire was a defining moment for the human species. We know our distant ancestors; Homo erectus and the Neanderthals had mastered this element, and were already using it to shape the landscape and unknowingly their own bodies. Fire provided them protection from predators, created illumination to dispel darkness and allowed them to torch thorny savanna scrubland, shaping their environment to turn it into prime hunting grasslands.

In his wonderful book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,
surmises that “the power of fire was not limited by the form, structure of strength of the human body. A single woman with a flint or fire stick could burn down an entire forest in a matter of hours.”

But most importantly fire allowed us to cook. Cooking changed the game for humans, using the alchemy of fire to convert previously inedible foods, like parasite ridden carrion, or hard, stringy tubers and tough, toxic grains, into safe, nutritious and digestible meals, by harnessing fire to change both their chemistry and biology. Our ancestors bodies biologically adapted to eating cooked food, developing a smaller mouth, shorter gut and bigger brain. From this perspective fire has re-shaped our anatomy, physiology, landscape, psychology, mythology and society.

In his book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human; Richard Wrangham postulates a great question... “Are we just an ordinary animal that happens to enjoy the tastes and securities of cooked food without in any way depending on them? Or are we a new kind of species tied to the use of fire by our biological needs, relying on cooked food to supply enough energy to our bodies?”

So how do we go about getting this sunlight to unwind itself from wood? Well, we have to spin the wood of course! The simplest form of friction fire lighting involves just two sticks, one spinning against the other. This most elegant form of fire making is called the hand drill, where the union of the male stick with the female stick results in the birth of a living fire.

The evidence suggests that we first mastered this skill is sub-Saharan Africa, as the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa provides the earliest, most definitive archaeology for the first human controlled use of fire (Wonderwerk means “miracle” in the Afrikaans) in the early Palaeolithic. Using existing hunter-gather groups as a lens, it is most lightly that hand drill was employed, as it is still used by the Hadza people of Tanzania and the San Bushmen of the Kalahari today.




Photo of San Bushman with short drill, as compared to the illustration of the Hadza man with traditional long drill

Both the drill (the spinning stick) and the hearth (the static stick) need to be made from a soft, dry wood. A small notch is cut into the heath to locate the drill and a small grove cut down one side to collect the hot dust. Dry tinder is placed under the set, a small pinch of sand in the notch to provide some ‘bite’ and off you go. There are a lot of different drilling positions, from the relaxed seated ‘open’ position, to a one kneed ‘bow drill’ style position, to a fully kneeling ‘prayer’ position, to the powerful ‘short stance’ seated position. It’s just a case of experimenting and seeing which one suits you best.



Photo of the author in short-stance position and photo of a ‘white board’ cheat sheet from one of the author’s classes


There are a number of ticks of the trade; one is that you need spin the drill with the heels of your hands, as it is very easy to get blisters when you are learning and the thicker skin on the heels of your hands are more forgiving. Another ‘apache secret’ is to press down on the drill with the focus of the press on ‘flowing’ power down and around from your big latissimus dorsi back muscles, as most beginners will press down with their chest muscles and their pectorals will quickly exhaust and give up.



Each pass down the drill requires a transition to start the next, this can be quite tricky to master as the drill needs to stay in the notch, the best way to do this is to anchor the drill at the base with one hand, while slipping the other one quickly to the top of the drill and locking it in place with your thumb while the other hand returns to the top for another pass. Once you have generated enough fuel in the groove by spinning the sticks together to create wood dust, it is time to pick up the tempo and increase the temperature by applying more pressure and increasing the friction. When you hit the ‘flash-point’ of the hot, dry dust that you have been creating, you will get ignition and the dust will start to burn, creating an ember. The ember is picked up in its tinder bundle and gently coaxed to flames by blowing on it. Heat, fuel and oxygen... it is a very powerful combination!



I hope this short blog on friction fire kindles a flickering flame of interest in exploring what makes you human? I have taught many hundreds of people how to make friction fire over the years and the novelty never wears off - it is magical. It is a burning passion. We are magicians, we can conjure fire from just two sticks and it is possibly the most defining skill of our species, the skill that differentiated us from all the other mammals on this planet. I believe everyone should be able to light a fire this way and would encourage you to give it a go and see what it feels like to be a real human!

© Ben McNutt - Words and Illustrations © Richie Owens - Photographs

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