Exploring the unique relationship between fire and mankind

Following discussions involving scientists from across the World the Chicheley Declaration was signed which stated:

By 2050, global mean temperatures are expected to be at least 1–2OC warmer than the early twentieth century, potentially altering fire regimes by transforming vegetation in fire-prone landscapes and making previously low fire-risk regions more flammable. With globally interconnected economies and population exceeding nine billion by 2050, all fire challenges will be human–fire challenges. It is therefore imperative that wildfire research that has heretofore been fragmented as sub-disciplines among physical, biological and social sciences, engineering and humanities be integrated across disciplinary and national academic frameworks so that research and policy can tackle twenty-first century fire problems. We believe that wildfire should be considered in terms that recognize diverse natural and human tensions that may vary across cultural settings.

Professor Scott commented “If there are challenges considering risk in landscapes where fire is common, then the problems of developing wildfire policy in countries such as England, where fire is uncommon but where this may change in the future, are even more complex”. He added “We hope some of the research published in this volume today will contribute to the current debates on the relationship between fire and mankind”.

A fiery world aids the peopling of America
North America experienced regular fires for thousands of years before the arrival of humans in North America according to new research published today.

This new study has found evidence of wildfires well before human arrival and a significant period of charcoal deposition, which occurred between 12,500 to 14,000 years ago, possibly coinciding with the arrival of the first humans on the island. Human populations in North America who might have used fire as a tool thousands of years earlier than previously thought.

Dr. Mark Hardiman, senior lecturer in Geography at the University of Portsmouth and lead author of the study, said: “This study allows us to paint a much better picture of what these early occupied landscapes would have looked like. The sedimentary record that exists in the canyon is truly spectacular and records ‘snapshots’ of the landscape changes which were occurring on the islands at the end of the last ice age,” he added.

The researchers, including Professor Andrew C. Scott from the Department of Earth Sciences, Royal Holloway University of London, studied the Arlington Canyon on Santa Rosa Island, which is famous for the discovery of the “Arlington Springs Man” — some of the earliest human remains found in the Americas. “The rich concentrations of charcoal fragments found in the often complex sedimentary sections are evidence of past burning. Until now, there was very little understanding about when this burning had occurred and how it fitted in with human arrival on the island,” Professor Scott explained.

Dr. Hardiman continued: “It is well observed that native people used fire as a tool in more recent times but its use by these much earlier vanguard populations (who arrived in North American towards the end of the last ice age) remains somewhat elusive.”

“We cannot say for sure if this shift relates to the arrival of people or rapid climate changes which are known to occur during this period, there is no ‘smoking gun’ so to speak, but this does raise new questions which can now be investigated in more detail.” Professor Scott added: “If we can verify a direct link, we can then try and find out who these early people were and calculate when exactly they arrived on the islands. We might find a fascinating gateway to the past, which goes back even further than the current human story for the islands.”

— Read more in M. Hardiman et al., “Fire history on California Channel Islands spanning human arrival in the Americas,” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 371 (23 May 2016): 20150167 (doi:10.1098/rstb.2015.0167); and A. C. Scott et al., “The interaction of fire and mankind: Introduction,” in the same issue of the journal