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Ilustração: Kerexu Martim

The shaman Davi Kopenawa Yanomami sent me a question about the origins of fire through my friend and editor Ricardo Teperman. What gave rise to humankind’s profound relationship with the colorful flames that captivate eyes, warm up nights, and devastate forests?

Although the scientific worldview estimates that there are between two billion and two trillion galaxies in the Universe, containing just under 200 sextillion stars of approximate similarity to the Sun, fire is a rare astral wonder, a distinct phenomenon that is intimately linked to the surfeit of oxygen and to humankind’s conscious propagation of flames. Contrary to popular belief, the Sun doesn’t shine because it is burning but because the hydrogen and helium at its core, which make up 99,9% of that celestial sphere, are in a constant process of nuclear fusion, in which temperatures can reach 15 million degrees Celsius.

Fire is a relatively cold phenomenon in comparison. Temperatures hover around 1,000 degrees Celsius, though they can range as low as 600 degrees Celsius when the flame is red and 5,000 when the flame is blue, with yellow in the mid-range. Chemistry as it is studied in universities and research laboratories defines the Grandfather Fire responsible for driving out animals as oxygen’s sudden reaction to various combustible compounds. This rapid oxidation produces light, heat, and combustion derivatives like carbon dioxide.

Since the origin of life on Earth 3.7 billion years ago, fire has mostly been scarce or non-existent. This is due to lack of oxygen in the atmosphere. Only after the plant kingdom began evolving 470 million years ago was there enough oxygen for fires to occur. Even so, the emergence of this chemical reaction only became more widespread 420 million years ago, when oxygen levels increased to the point of causing large conflagrations, which are evident in fossil records as distinct layers of carbonized plans.

Around 6 or 7 million years ago, fires became more common as highly combustible vegetation we refer to as grasses—herbaceous plants that can lie low as pasture or rise taller than a person—spread across the globe. With the passage of time, conflagrations grew more frequent, larger, and longer lasting as the planet’s surface temperature increased and humidity decreased due to the occurrence of fires. Seasonal wildfires began to take place during periodic changes in biodiversity, becoming crucial to the dynamic balance of biomes like prairies and savannas—for example, the Cerrado, a vast ecoregion of tropical savanna in Eastern Brazil.

The most recent chapter in the saga of fire on Earth bears the indelible mark of human intervention. Our ancestors’ exploitation of fire was not a singular event, as suggested by the Greek myth of Prometheus, the titan who is said to have stolen fire from the gods and gifted it to humankind, thereby changing the course of history. Rather, fire was humanized in a long string of discoveries and inventions that made it possible for this transformative phenomenon to be controlled, preserved, and used in multiple ways.

It is believed that our ancestors discovered the heat and light properties of fire when they encountered conflagrations caused by sunlight, lightning, or lava. At first, human beings only used fire—to warm their bodies, scare off predators, and cook food—when they happened to come across it. Much like chimpanzees and other primates today, our ancestors probably began to follow signs of wildfires so they could feed on the dead plants and animals left in their wake.

Sporadic as it was, the availability of cooked foods increased our access to nutrients. In time, our great-great-great grandparents understood that fires could be kept alight by continually feeding the flames with wood, kindling, straw, and dry leaves. We began to coevolve around fire, alongside grasses and other species.

The 2017 film Piripkura, directed by Mariana Oliva, Renata Terra, and Bruno Jorge, movingly documents the great lengths gone to by the two remaining members of the Pirikpura people to maintain their only flame alight in a hollowed length of wood, zealously safeguarding the incredible power of fire, night and day, in rain and sunshine.

Research shows that our ancestors discovered how to make fire between 1.5 million and 400 million years ago, either by using sunlight or rubbing together rocks over straw, kindling, and charcoal. But it was only in the Upper Paleolithic Period, which started 50,000 years ago, that fire became widespread, forever altering our relationship to other animals and also to our own species. Human beings socialized around hearths, spurring group cohesion and cultural accumulation.

We were never the same again. The conscious production of fire was key to reversing ecological perspectives and transforming us into one of the most feared animals on the planet, capable of subjugating any land predator. It is highly probable that fire-related spiritual beings began to be devised around this time, ushering in a long era of deifying fire that would translate into countless gods worshiped by peoples around the planet, like the Aztec Xiuhtecuhtli, the Hawaiian Pele, the Japanese Kagu-tsuchi, the Hindu Agni, the Greek Hestia and Hephaestus, the Roman Vesta and Vulcan, the Celtic Brigid, and the Norse Logi.

Following the last glacial period 11.5 million years ago, with the development of ceramics, metallurgy, and agriculture, fire’s impressive capacity for chemical transformation gained greater and greater importance in human societies. Low-temperature, controlled burning was used to return nutrients to the soil and clear land for cultivating edible plants. At the same time, there were more and more high-temperature, uncontrolled fires. These were deployed as furious weaponry in the capitalist war against soil, fungi, trees, non-human animals and, most of all, other people.

Starting in the Bronze Age, 5,300 years ago, fire became indispensable to numerous human activities, especially considering our growing obsession with war. Our ancestors’ sacred fire was progressively used as a tool for oppression, torture, and execution, from the destruction of Tenochtitlan to the bonfires of the Inquisition, from the U.S. firebombs that devastated Japan and the U.S. napalm that rained down on civilians during the Vietnam War, from the criminal fires set by the Myanmar military to the white phosphorus launched into the lungs of children in Gaza by the Israeli military.

We know wars are often motivated by the desire to plunder resources and make money. The desecration of Grandfather Fire as an instrument of Death is a clear symptom of the diseases of commodity and money worship that Davi Kopenawa Yanomami speaks of:

“When gold is in the cold depths of the earth, everything is good. Everything is truly good. It isn’t dangerous. When white men retrieve gold from the earth, they burn it, they meddle with it over fire as if it were flour. And smoke comes out. This is how xawara, the smoke that comes out of gold, is created. Later, this xawara wakëxi, this ‘smoke-epidemic’ spreads through the forest, where the Yanomami people live, but also through the white man’s land, everywhere. This is why we are dying. (. . .) When this smoke reaches the sky’s chest, the sky also falls very ill and starts being affected by xawara. And the earth also falls ill.”

Today fire is used in tropical rainforests to create pastureland and prospect for gold, accelerating the socio-environmental crisis and giving rise to the catastrophe of depleted rivers and decreased humidity that make the Amazon dryer and more flammable. This only reinforces the global heating trend and increases the climate variability caused by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases produced by the cattle industry and our fixation on burning fossil fuels.

Our ancestral relationship with fire is sacred and must be healed. The fire that wreaks destruction on biodiversity in the Amazon and Pantanal is the same fire needed to preserve biodiversity in the Cerrado. In the final stages of the mortuary ritual of the Yanomami people, fire is used to turn bones into ash and lay the memory of the deceased to rest. The problem isn’t fire but the undue frequency and intensity of its use for the profits coveted by predators outside the law, science, and human decency.

Present-day climate change points to the desertification of large swathes of Brazil’s northern, northeastern, and midwestern regions. Meanwhile, the south is subjected to progressively destructive, heavy rainfall. Luzia do Paraguaçu, the protagonist of Itamar Vieira Júnior’s striking novel, Salvar o Fogo, published in Brazil in 2023 by Editora Todavia, has the gift and curse of fire, which both saves and destroys. What vital fire must we recover from within us to save Grandfather Fire from our Death drive?

Sidarta Ribeiro is a father, capoeira practitioner, and biologist. He holds a PhD in Animal Behavior from Rockefeller University and a Post-Doc in Neurophysiology from Duke University. A researcher with the Strategic Studies Center at the Oswaldo Cruz Foudation (Fiocruz), and a cofounder and educator at the Brain Institute at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte, he has authored five books, including O Oráculo da Noite and Sonho Manifesto (Cia das Letras). For SUMAÚMA, he writes the monthly column Thought Seeding.

An Indigenous woman of the Guarani Mbya people, Kerexu Martim lives in a village in the southernmost region of the city of São Paulo. She has been drawing since she was a child, primarily women, inspired by her own origins–a mix of Indigenous peoples on her mother’s side and Black people on her father’s side.

Fact-checker: Plínio Lopes
Proofreader (Portuguese): Valquíria Della Pozza
Spanish translation: Julieta Sueldo Boedo
English translation: Julia Sanches
Art by: Kerexu Martim
Editorial workflow, copy editing, and layout: Viviane Zandonadi
Director: Eliane Brum

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