📚 Black To School: Issue #13

Black Is Innovation: Chemistry of Fire

Black Is Innovation

Welcome to issue #13! 💡

Black To School celebrates Black people and Black contributions around the world. The “Why?” that powers our mission is simple. “Our ancestors invented the table that the world now sits at. It’s time to not just claim our seat, but to set the agenda.” 

If you're new to Black To School, we just explored our contributions to the field of poetry and the literary arts from the first written languages and Harlem Renaissance literati to the genius of Hip Hop and Afrofuturism. If you haven’t already subscribed to our weekly newsletter, you can join our growing community here

It’s May. Happy National Inventors Month! Our theme will be all about the leadership of Africans and the African Diaspora in inventing the most transformational and widely used tools and technologies of all time. 

This month, you’ll get to hear about the first controlled chemical reaction discovered by humans: fire; explore how our innovations truly made a house a home; see how everyday people got superpowers when we helped to create the first personal computer; and take pride in the fact that we are on a mission to save the planet with sustainable and regenerative systems.  

A special thanks 🙏🏾 to the “Golden Griots'' (or top sharers) below for spreading the word about last week’s article. Please keep sharing stories of #blackcontributions and our collective history within your networks! 

  • Nik R.

  • Janet D.

  • Brandon J.

  • Saamra M-G.

  • Obi O.

In this issue, we’ll: 

  • Go back to the very beginning and see how our ancestors tamed fire and used it to permanently improve the quality of life of all humans. 

  • Turn up the heat as you experiment and learn fun facts about fire.

Chemistry of Fire

Contributor: Ekiuwa Aire

Fire is regarded by some as man’s greatest discovery. It feels as old as time. We take it as a given in our day to day that it will boil our water, propel our gas-guzzling cars, heat our homes, light our campfires, power our factories, and, and, and. It’s so familiar and predictable that we’ve co-opted the term and now use it in everyday jargon: “I’m fired up!” “You’re playing with fire.” “Hold my feet to the fire.” And my personal favorite, “Liar, liar, pants on fire!”

The reality is that much like fire most people also take for granted the other three elements that occur organically in nature: water, air, and earth. Natural fires are caused when lightning strikes; a volcano erupts; or rocks fall and spark. So, can we really claim credit for discovering something that can be created without any human intervention? In a word, Yes. Because fire 🔥 like all elements can be controlled.

Fire (or combustion) was the first chemical reaction that our ancestors discovered. The chemistry of fire is quite complex, requiring fuel, heat energy, oxygen, and uninhibited chain reactions. Historically, it has been difficult to confirm exact timelines on the discovery of fire because the evidence was quite literally burnt

Despite the challenges, there have been archaeological breakthroughs in identifying hearths, recurring and localized fires, as well as partially charred artifacts. All of which place the earliest evidence of controlled fire on the continent of Africa (1 Million years ahead of similar findings in Europe and the Middle East).

In the end, what’s most important is not only the “where”, but also the “when”. The timing of that first man-made flame is the key to answering enduring questions about the role that fire and the Africans who discovered it played in the physical, intellectual, and social evolution of humans. Watch this 3-min video-clip to learn why controlling fire is still our hottest discovery yet! 

Our Eternal Flame

The first, verifiable instance of man-made or man-managed fires was in South Africa in the Wonderwerk cave approximately 1 million years ago. Because of the enclosed space and the type of tools found, experts believe that it was a campfire started by our human relatives, Homo erectus.

Although Homo erectus were almost certainly the first ancient humans to cook, they went extinct 200,000 years ago. And our direct ancestors, Homo sapiens, carried the torch forward. Unlike Neanderthals in Europe who overlapped and in some cases interbred with them, Homo Sapiens are thought to have independently learned how to create and tame fire.

There are a number of theories about what our early Africans ancestors used fire for, ranging from cooking meat and plants; protecting against predators; and making strong tools and weapons to warding off insects when sleeping; staying warm; clearing hard to pass areas of land; illuminating public spaces for social gatherings; and even sculpting pottery.

“When humans domesticated fire, they gained control of an obedient and potentially limitless force. Unlike eagles, humans could choose when and where to ignite a flame, and they were able to exploit fire for any number of tasks. Most importantly, the power of fire was not limited by the form, structure or strength of the human body.”

- Author of Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari

The greatest and most enduring impact of controlling fire has been the evolution of the human mind in size and function. Our brains grew as cooking reduced the energy typically required to chew and digest food. While our working memory and problem solving skills improved as the quality of our sleep improved (with predators kept at bay by fire). 

The power to control fire contributed to the beginning of the cognitive revolution. It was an age when our African ancestors on the continent and throughout the diaspora communicated and collaborated closely to explore, create, and survive. This period in human history ultimately placed Homo sapiens at the top of the food chain and enabled us to outcompete and survive all of our other human relatives. 

Bringing the Heat

The taming of fire happened over millions of years. Yet, once our ancestors comfortably mastered the science of combustion 70,000 years ago, they unlocked a steady stream of innovations that require different levels of heat to produce, including symbolic art, jewelry, fashion as well as functional tools, furniture, equipment, transportation, and weapons. 

The chemistry of fire was just the beginning. There are now generations of Black chemists who are experimenting with new elements and building on the foundational discoveries of our ancestors, including chemical scientists, engineers, researchers, technicians, entrepreneurs, and investors around the world. The story of Black innovation began by harnessing natural energy, which accelerated human evolution.


🛠️ The Black To School Toolkit

Now What? Dig Deeper with Friends, Family, and Others.

  • Want to learn more about how we domesticated fire? Click here to watch this 13-minute overview video by PBS. Want more? Read the book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari for the full story on how our ancestors stoked the fire and never looked back.

  • Curious about how fire makes humans human? Checkout this slide presentation that walks through how using fire to cook changed us inside and out. Still interested? Read this book by anthropologist, Richard Wrangham.

  • Ready to do some combustion experiments with your kids? Watch this TEDEd video about the properties of fire with teens (8th grade and up). Suit up for these super fun and safe “at-home” science experiments with your kids (all ages). Start with the fire ones #22 and #35.

  • Enjoy visiting Wonderwerk Cave? Take a virtual tour and marvel at two million years of human life that began in South Africa.


⌛ The Black To School Timeline

Black Innovation Began By Harnessing Natural Energy, Which Accelerated Human Evolution.

  • In this issue, we go back to Ancient times (1 Million Years Ago) The Thing: Chemistry of Fire, our ancestors controlled combustion and used it to reinvent the way we live and work, together.

  • Next week, we return to the 19th Century (200 Years Ago) The Place: Home, the target location of countless inventions that expanded and delighted families around the world.


About This Week’s Contributor

Ekiuwa Aire

Ekiuwa Aire is a bestselling, award winning author at Our Ancestories, a publishing company focused on creating children’s books that provide a more positive narrative of African History.

Her debut book - Idia of the Benin Kingdom has been recognized by the Children’s Africana Book Awards as one of the Best Books for Young Children for 2021. This book has also been recognized with five other awards.

Ekiuwa’s goal is to write stories that provide kids of all ethnicities with a means to relate to and learn from pre-colonial African legends.

I love that the Black to School newsletter uses facts from current events and history to inspire me. Coupled with the well thought out insights are links and resources to learn more about the themes. In one newsletter, there is a week’s worth of content to digest and learn from. Kudos to the team!