The Origin of Us: Campfires As The Bedrock of Human Civilization


If you want to understand who we are as human beings, a good question to ask yourself is “Where did we come from?”

And to begin to find an answer to this big and daunting question, it’s helpful to discover more about our history and past, especially the evolutionary origin of our species and civilization as a whole.

In The Social Conquest of Earth, legendary scientist Edward O. Wilson provides us an intriguing glimpse into the story of where we came from, what shaped us into who we are today, and what natural forces contributed to our advancements in society and civilization.

Like many familiar stories of our origin, it begins with our ability to create fire and control it.

The first use of fire was likely from lightning strikes, which were helpful to flush and trap prey who’d run away from ground fires. Many animals would become cooked by these fires which likely sparked our interest in cooking meats and vegetables. This was also an easy way to get bones that could later be fashioned into tools.

However, once we learned how to create fire and control it on our own, this led to the development of campfires and campsites, which – as I will try to explain – was likely the first step toward how our civilization evolved into what it is today.

Eusociality, nests, and campfires

Eusociality is a high level of organization among animals where individuals are highly cooperative and altruistic, often acting to benefit the group over self-interest. It is a very rare form of social evolution that is often only studied in insects (like ants and bees, who work solely for the benefit of the colony).

Edward O. Wilson is an evolutionary biologist who specializes in studying eusociality in the animal world, particularly in ants and other eusocial insects. However, throughout the book he demonstrates many interesting similarities between insects and humans that might help explain our evolutionary origin.

First, he shares the key characteristics of “eusociality” here:

    “In all of the animal species that have attained eusociality – all of them, without known exception – altruistic cooperation protects a persistent, defensible nest from enemies, whether predators, parasites, or competitors. Second, this step having been attained, the stage was set for the origin of eusociality, in which members of the group belong to more than one generation and divide labor in a way that sacrifices at least some of their personal interests to that of the group.”

According to Wilson, campfires and campsites can be seen as a type of “nest” that helped introduce the human species down a more eusocial path of development.

In many ways, campfires were a significant step in “group bonding” within our species. They were common places to share food, tell stories, learn from each other, and begin to form strong bonds and loyalties with the group.

Once we set up campsites, it became easier for division of labor too. Some individuals would stay at the “nest” to raise young or protect it from potential invaders, while other individuals would forage for food, hunt for prey, and bring the bounty back for others.

Over time our “nests” became increasingly more complex and sufficient, especially with the rise of agriculture and being able to grow our own food. Instead of the next generation starting their own nests, they would stay with their groups and continue building together across generations.

All of these factors were huge leaps toward the beginning of society, culture, and civilization. And in an odd way, they were all sparked from the invention of a simple campfire.


The Social Conquest of Earth by evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson is an illuminating look into the evolutionary origins of humanity, social life, and civilization as a whole. He draws on evidence in biology, psychology, and anthropology to demonstrate where modern day civilization originates and what natural forces influenced us to become who we are today. E.O. Wilson is often considered “the father of sociobiology,” which is an important subject that combines evolutionary theory with the social sciences and humanities.

Story-telling and rituals around the campfire

Campfires and campsites spurred many practical benefits for group survival (increased cooperation, division of labor, and protection from threats), but they were also a starting point toward deeper psychological and spiritual needs as well.

It’s common for our early human ancestors and contemporary hunter-gatherers to use campfires as a place to tell stories, dance, and sing together as a community. Even today, the campfire is still considered a popular place to share personal anecdotes, sing folk songs, and contemplate the meaning of life (just add some s’mores).

All of these inventions were a huge step in the beginning of culture and religion. They also served the greater interests of the group by increasing feelings of group unity and community-bonding. Music and dance still functions in the same way today.

According to E. O. Wilson,

    “It is self-evident that the songs and dances of contemporary hunter-gatherer peoples serve them at both the individual and the group levels. They draw the tribal members together, creating a common knowledge and purpose. They excite passion for action. They are mnemonic, stirring and adding to the memory of information that serves the tribal purpose. Not least, knowledge of the songs and dances gives power to those within the tribe who know them best.”

Sometimes these songs and dances around campfires would reflect practical knowledge about the land, plants, and animals. Knowledge that was passed down between generations because it was very important for survival.

However, many songs and dances around campfires also reflected myths and fictional stories. They were likely designed to answer deeper questions about life, like “Why do we exist?” or “Is there a supernatural force that guides everything?”

In the book, these myths are often referred to as “creation stories” and they were likely a precursor to organized religion:

    “The creation stories gave the members of each tribe an explanation for their existence. It made them feel loved and protected above all other tribes. In return, their gods demanded absolute belief and obedience. And rightly so. The creation myth was the essential bond that held the tribe together.”

Creation stories (like religion) give people’s lives deeper meaning and they unite groups around a common purpose.

Many tribes would often be tightly held together by their myths. These “creation stories” created a deep psychological connection between everyone in the tribe, which further enhanced cooperation and altruism. Individuals who questioned these myths would likely not fare too well in the tribe for long.

These myths also sparked a lot of competition between different tribes. They were often a way to separate “Us” from “Them” which was a driving force to fight with other tribes and take their resources.

Tribal conflict is common throughout human history, and I’m sure you can think of a few examples of how these forces are still playing out today. Altruism for the “in-group” can sometimes lead to some real brutality toward any “out-group.”

The complex nature of our humanity

In crude evolutionary terms, an individual’s primary goal is to survive and reproduce so they can spread their genes to the next generation.

Richard Dawkins’ A Selfish Gene is a popular work on why “gene survival” is the most important factor to evolution. In the book, he also describes why individuals may be altruistic from this perspective, either due to kinship (we protect family because they share many of our genes) or reciprocal (we do good for others because they will return the favor, which still helps us propagate our own genes in the long-run).

While kinship and reciprocation are definitely evolutionary drivers behind altruism and cooperation, E.O. Wilson advocates a new theory called “multi-level selection” that explains a wider range of altruistic behaviors found in humans.

Basically, natural selection can take place on multiple levels – both individual and group. Genes that favor altruism and cooperation will benefit the group, while genes that favor selfishness and competition will favor the individual.

Both of these forces work together to create a “dual nature” of selfishness and selflessness that exists in all of us.

Natural selection from an individual level will favor a person to act selfishly to get more resources, or higher status within a group, or the best possible mate. However, natural selection from a group level will favor a group whose members are more cooperative and altruistic, rather than groups that are more divided.

    “Nevertheless, an iron rule exists in genetic social evolution. It is that selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, while groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals. The victory can never be complete; the balance of selection pressures cannot move to either extreme. If individual selection were to dominate, societies would dissolve. If group selection were to dominate, human groups would come to resemble ant colonies.”

If humans within a group are completely selfish, the group will deteriorate and they will lose out on the benefits of working together as a group. They are also likely to be out-competed by another group of humans who know how to cooperate, divide labor, and build better communities.

But if humans within a group are completely selfless, the group will likely stagnate and stop evolving. Individuals will become content with their roles (not seeking to improve their status by helping the group) and the group will become a bunch of lifeless automatons.

It’s likely we will always be a dynamic balance between “selfishness” and “selflessness.” It’s built into our very nature.

We still need tribes

One final point to reiterate is that this need for a “tribe” is still very much alive today. While we may typically think of a “tribe” as something from our evolutionary past, we still live in tribes today.

In fact, we live in a system of inter-locking tribes:

    “People must have a tribe. It gives them a name in addition to their own and social meaning in a chaotic world. It makes the environment less disorienting and dangerous. The social world of each modern human is not a single tribe, but rather a system of interlocking tribes, among which it is often difficult to find a single compass. People savor the company of like-minded friends, and they yearn to be in one of the best – a combat marine regiment, perhaps, an elite college, the executive committee of a company, a religious sect, a fraternity, a garden club – any collectivity that can be compared favorably with others, competing groups in the same category.”

There are many ways we can fulfill this need for a “tribe.” Even something as simple as following a sports team or having a favorite band can unite large groups of people in profound ways.

Overall, The Social Conquest of Earth is a really interesting look into the origins of our humanity, social life, and civilization. It reveals to us both the good and bad of human nature, but most importantly: it teaches us where we came from, why we are here now, and where we might be going in the future.

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