Fire-making 101: Tried and true methods to light a campfire

SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – It’s time for autumn leaves, weekend camping trips, marshmallows with chocolate and graham crackers, and the inevitable reminder that lighting a campfire isn’t as easy as it looks.

But these campfire trends from human history can connect you to the spark needed to light your fire and the spark needed to remind us of humanity’s roots.

This two-part hand drill is common to many ancient societies in the New and Old Worlds. Image: The Methods of Fire-Making by Walter Hugh, published in an 1888 Smithsonian report.

In 1892, the Smithsonian Institution published The Methods of Fire-Making by Walter Hough.

Hough states there are three methods of making fire by friction on wood: 1) a twirling motion, 2) a sawing motion, and 3) a plowing motion. And though we don’t actually know how long mankind has been starting fires and using those fires to gain an advantage, we do know it made an enormous impact on societies.

Twirling motions from human history include simple two-part hand drills, four-part bow and cord drills, and pump drills.

Historic cultures known to use the two-part hand drill include some Eskimo peoples, natives of the Amazon, historic cultures along the Oronoco Rivers in South America and in Japan, and people who once lived on the island of Madagascar.

The Iroquois Nation sometimes employed a four-part pump drill for making fires, which required the use of four hands (two people) and a keen sense of balance.

This Iroquois fire drill sketch was published in an 1888 Smithsonian report

Fire-making by sawing was another method entirely. This technique was practiced by some Australian tribes and by native peoples in the East Indies.

In this method, bamboo is sawed until the heat from the movement lights kindling, which is often made from dried leaves wrapped in grass.

To make fire by plowing, clasp a stick between the hands and angle the stick at 45 degrees onto a short, cylindrical, dried branch or stick. The motion of plowing into the stick, as if it were a garden, will eventually start a fire without kindling—but this is slow, difficult work.

Are you ready to try one of these ancient fire-starting techniques on your next camping trip? Bear in mind that none of these methods are as easy as taking a lighter out of your pocket. But if you find yourself struggling when you try to make a spark, just know that some of mankind’s methods of making fire predate written history. These traditions were passed down from generation to generation, with successive generations improving upon previous ways.

The sawing method is another technique of ancient fire-starting; this image was published in an 1888 Smithsonian report

A mummy of a man who lived more than 5,000 years ago was discovered in Austria, and preserved with his body was also the flint, iron pyrites, and tinder he needed to start his next fire.

But remember that anyone can read about the ancient methods once used to start fires, but reading is not the same as experiencing the art of historic fire-making with your own hands. One cannot have a true comprehension of the subject until one has smelled the smoke, felt the heat, heard the popping of the embers, and tasted the meal prepared atop the coals.

How to fire a plow; image printed in 1888 by the Smithsonian Institution

Ancient fire-building is an easy way to reconnect to humanity’s humble beginnings and remember that we’re not so very different from those who came before us. Mankind’s ability to control fire began more than one and a half million years ago—such evidence has been gathered at multiple sites in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Scholarly writings suggest that humanity may have begun to manipulate fires before we learned to start them ourselves.

Evidence suggests that man started grilling animals more than a million years ago. And it also suggests that socializing around a campfire is essential to being human.

So when you finally get that campfire lit (good luck) with one of these ancient methods, sit around that campfire with your family and/or friends and enjoy the sparks that fly between you. After all, we’re all descendants of the ancient holders of the flames. And we are all capable of starting fires in the methods our ancestors used.

We are human, after all.

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