In the beginning, man discovered fire…
On a more serious note, whether we start a fire with sticks or stones, fire has been central to our livelihoods and since man discovered how to use fire over 700,000 years ago, he has been on a never-ending quest to master it. He soon learned after his discovery that for fire to be useful, it must be controlled. In a stroke of genius, he found that by concentrating fire in a hole in the ground that he could not only control the spread of fire better, but also increase it’s heat output. This method proved to be pivotal in man’s long term survival. And so the history of fire pits began.
Origin of Fire Pits
Fire was central to ancient daily life. Though there is much debate around when the first opportunistic use of fire was, one thing is for certain and that is the origins of the fire pit were born out of necessity. Man needed fire to survive and harnessing fire by using a fire pit was a monumental leap forward in the development of every culture around the world.
Man’s first use of a fire pit dates back to the Middle Paleolithic period, some 200,000-400,000 years ago. Archeological evidence from sites such as the Tabun Cave at Mt. Carmel in Israel and the Klasies River Caves in South Africa shows that fire pits were made using a collection of stones to contain the fire and prevent it from spreading. After repeated usage of the same fire pit, the ash of the fire pit built up and eventually created the underpinnings of what we know today as the hearth, or fireplace.
Other cultures throughout history used a simple hole in the ground filled with hot coals and stones for both warmth and for in-ground cooking. Peruvians, Eastern Indians, and many Polynesian cultures used in-ground fire pits to cook for large numbers of people during times of festival, harvest and religious ceremony.
Fast-forward to the frontier days of the wild west in the United States. We may be most familiar with the use of fire pits in Native American teepees: as a central feature used for heating and council discussions. The early explorers on their journeys of discovery used fire pits as a way to cook. Above ground pits were made using a circle of large stones where meat was placed on an implement and held over the pit fire to cook. One day, a smart cowboy decided to put a makeshift grill over the stones so the meat could be placed over the fire unattended. And thus what we know today as the barbecue was invented.
Types of Fire Pits
The construction of fire pits changed markedly throughout history. As man learned to work with metals, in-ground cooking and heating rose above ground. Many styles of fire pits emerged as different cultures found new ways to shape and form metal.
For example, the chiminea, a freestanding fire pit with a bulbous body and a vertical chimney, was originally made from clay by Mexican tribesman several thousand years ago. The tribesman discovered that heating certain metals in the clay chiminea made the metal softer and easier to work with. Soon after this discovery, chimineas were made from metal because they were much more durable than clay.
Another type of fire pit with its obscure roots in both nomadic and modern times is the Dakota fire pit. This type of pit was used by many cultures as a way to provide warmth without attracting others to the fire’s location. From African tribes to military survival, construction of pit is the same, providing a nearly flameless and smokeless concentration of heat.
A hole, approximately one to two feet in diameter and about a foot in depth, is dug into the ground and a second smaller hole is dug horizontally starting about a foot away from the larger hole and angling down until it meets the bottom of the larger hole. Wood is placed in the bottom of the larger hole and lit. The small shaft hole provides a lot of oxygen to the bottom of the fire, increasing its combustion temperature and reducing smoke. And because the fire is below ground, it is difficult to detect a flame by potential enemies.
Modern fire pits have evolved into a variety of shapes and sizes, from engineered precast forms to copper fire bowls to complete do-it-yourself kits. Engineered precast fire pits are made from concrete and can either be as simple as a thick ring or decorative with ornate designs molded into the form. Copper fire bowls are free standing and consist of a large bowl to contain the fire, a four-legged stand to support the bowl, and a screen over the top to reduce stray embers. Do-it-yourself kits generally consist of prefabricated pieces made of reinforced concrete that fit together into some design. The kits contain all of the necessary parts to build an elaborate fire pit suitable for cooking and backyard entertainment.
Changing the Course of Mankind
The fire pit, in any of it’s forms, is an invention that changed the course of mankind. Without the ability to control fire, man would not have been able to cook food, keep warm and ward off predators and insects. Smelting of metals would not have been possible without the ability to concentrate heat. And the allure of the flames enjoyed on a crisp fall evening in modern man’s backyard among friends and family would never be experienced.