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A Paleolithic Fire Lighter

G. Carboni, December 2005
Translation edited by George Larry Stuart, March 2006




How (do not) light a cigarette
Quest for fire
To build and use a bow drill
Flint and steel set
A pump drill
Experimental archeology
History of technology


The first archeological evidence of primitive hearths or campfires dates back to about 500.000 years ago. However, it seems that control of fire became more frequent 250.000 years ago about. At the beginning, primitive men exploited fires lit by natural events, such as lightning or volcanic eruptions. Only more recently they learned to light it by themselves.

Have you ever wondered how primitive men succeeded in lighting fire given that they were lacking matches and gas lighters? Yet they succeeded! As they were not living in comfortable houses with central heating like ours, but living in huts exposed to icy winter winds, to rain and snow, surely they were much more motivated than us to have a fire lit. The fire was important mainly for the people who came from Africa and settled into colder climatic zones such as Europe and Asia. Fire was not only important for heating themselves, but also to be able to cook food and eat a warm meal. It was also useful to have a bit of light in the night and to keep wild beasts away. Fire was useful also to the ancient priests because through its flames it spoke to them of things happened in remote times and of things which would happen in a distant future. In short, the fire was very useful, yet they had to be able to light it!

Primitive men followed herds of animals during their migrations and they knew how to carry embers in a suitable container, but sometimes the ember would die and it became necessary to light a new fire. Surely, they could not wait for lightning or an eruption to light a fire. Keeping a fire constantly lit became a common practice only during the Neolithic, when men devoted themselves to the agriculture and became sedentary. Romans considered fire sacred and priestesses were charged to keep it always alight.


I remember that once I tried to light the fire with primitive methods, but things did not go exactly as I had foreseen. It all started many years ago when I was wanting to light a cigarette, but I did not have a match nor a lighter. Some years later, I realized that smoking was bad for my health, and wisely I stopped smoking, but at that time I needed a light. After having uselessly rummaged all through my house to find matches or a lighter, I told to myself:

"Primitive men were able to light a fire with primitive instruments, do you think that after so many millennia of technological progress and of evolution which make us so intelligent, I'm not able to find a system to light a cigarette? Of course I'll succeed to do it and even it will be easy: I need only to think a little on it!"

That's how I started to think which system I could use. I had a lens, but that day it was cloudy and then, even if it was present, it was winter and the Sun would be too weak. At this point, I remembered the system primitive men used to light a fire and I saw a picture in a textbook. It was a very simple matter: put a wooden rod on a little board and spin it back and forth with my hands until the tip burns because of the heat produced by the friction. Very simple indeed! Reassured by these reflections, I convinced myself that in 5 minutes at the latest, the time to find the suitable materials, I would have been able to light the cigarette.

The first drill stick I found was a branch of a bush, but it's unevenness hurt my hands as I tried to spin it. I understood I had to find a very round and straight stick. Soon, I found a wooden arrow shaft which I had put aside some months before. The drill should be about 250 mm long, but it has to be straight. It can be as short as 100 mm, provided it is not bent. It was easier for me to find a little board to use as a base board. Then, I started spinning the wooden rod between my palms, sure that it would be a matter of a couple of minutes, but...! Damn...!! Grr...!!! What a...!!! After half an hour of dogged effort, I didn't see a wisp of smoke. On the other hand, my hands felt as if they were on fire. I had to literally blow on them to refresh them.

The problem was, if I want to heat the tip of the stick and cause it to burn, I had to rub on the base with a certain downward friction and, hence to push downward. Therefore, it was necessary to rotate the drill while pushing it downward with my hands. In this way, after a few strokes back and forth, my hands arrive at the bottom of the drill and I have to bring them back up to the top. Although brief, this moment was enough to allow the wood to cool. I soon realized that I would never be able to light a fire in this way.

"That's why they used a bow!", suddenly I said to myself. I went to some nearby woods where I obtained a branch about half a meter long and a little crooked. I tied a string to the branch and I wrapped it for a couple of turns on the stick, but this way didn't work either because the string would  slip on the shaft. I tried to put a few drops of honey on the drill to increase the friction between the string and the shaft, but the string broke and I had to find another one stronger and more flexible. Later on, I learned that this is exactly why primitive men used skin strips or tendons or guts. So, more recently, I tried a strip of leather (figures 2 and 4) and things worked better.

After the first trial, I noticed that if I wanted to avoid piercing the hand with which I was pushing the drill on the board, I had to use a suitable tool. So, I sought out a flat stone and I made a socket on one side so that the top of the drill shaft could be kept inside it.

Now, things began to work better, but the drill slid on the board. So, I made some sockets on it. Then it was the board which moved, and I had to keep it steady with a foot. The system was still wobbly, but if I used both my feet, I blocked my access to work the bow.

After many attempts, during which various problems manifested themselves, I eventually made some progress. The string slipped off the bow, the coils overlapped, and the drill jumped some meters away, but with persistence and refinement of my technique, I started to see a little smoke. I was very pleased with this, but although I worked hard, there still was no trace of embers. In fact, around the socket on which the drill rotated, some smoking wood dust had gathered. It was too dispersed though, and quickly went out. To gather it, I made a blind hole near the edge of the board and a groove so that the ground-off embers were gathered all together. Soon after, I saw in a book a picture of an original bow-board fire lighter used by Native Americans and the board was made with a line holes and each of them had its own groove. This is a good idea! :)

After a lot of work, I eventually got some embers, but I had not prepared proper tinder to take up the combustion. I got some dead grass in a field, but it was not dry enough. So, while I'm a little ashamed to admit it, I dried it with a hairdryer. Very likely, the men who we consider primitive knew better than me how to solve that problem and they used dry tinder... But in winter, when all things are moist if not wet, what did they do about it? They must have prepared tinder ahead of time. Well, it was necessary to take some of the small embers, put them on the tinder, allow the glowing coal to take hold a little, then to introduce some dry grass and gently blow on it. The smoke would increase more and more and soon a flame appears!

At last I felt confident to light a fire, except that I had one hand occupied with the bow and the other with the stone which kept hold the stick, a foot which held the fire board steady, leaving only a foot to push in the grass... In that moment, the doorbell rang. It was a friend of mine. He had a lighter, but I was not even willing see it: by then it had become a matter of honor, a challenge. Me against the Paleolithic lighter, the bow, the tinder and the primitive men who were lurking there in spirit and who were laughing at me. Making fun of me behind my back and shaking their heads. The cigarette was no longer important, either!

"What are you doing?" My friend asked me.
"I'm trying to light a fire".
"Do you want a cigarette lighter? Here it is!"
"Stop it! I don't want even to see it! Throw it away"
"What's wrong with you?"
"Quiet, keep quiet!... Damn... Keep hold here!"

That's how with a friend's extra hands and after a day of frenetic work, finally I was able to see some little embers, as for fire... not quite yet, but I got close. I assure you that in that moment my opinion of "primitive" men increased very much. If they were able to light a fire with the few tools they had, they were very clever! I also understood that to light a fire in that way, you need experience, to know the proper materials and the suitable tinder to use. It is necessary to be able to make holes even without a drill, to find or to manufacture strong and flexible ropes, in short, the French would say: "Chapeau!"... Who ever said we are more intelligent than them? Ask a man of today to light a fire with primitive means and then you will see!


"The War of Fire" or "Quest for Fire" (La Guerre du Feu) is le title of the novel wrote by J.H. Rosny ainé en 1911, now edited by Penguin Books. It is also the title of the french movie made in 1981 by Jean-Jacques Annaud on this story. It tells the vicissitudes of a group of primitive men who are sent from their own tribe on a quest for some burning coals. In their village the fire had died and nobody knew how to light it again. In fact, they did not even knew it was possible to light a fire. Probably, they considered it something living or a strange being or a spirit and they were afraid of it. Undoubtedly, there have been remote times during which our predecessors, like the animals, feared fire. If one of them, braver than the others, tried to touch it, he likely got burned and ran away to hide. Later on, men probably thought the fire was the soul of trees, a sacred spirit or who knows what. Forestfires would make them run away terrorized (today we would do the same!). Perhaps, at some point they learned to obtain fire from a tree struck by lightning or other source and to use the fire and to keep it lighted. Let us get back to the the story of the movie, as there is a point I wish to make.

The movie narrates the odyssey of this little group of desperate men while they searched for fire and had to defend themselves from the attacks of wild beasts and hostile tribes. These men did not speak using words, but they used grunts, growls, laments and other sounds, which often were accompanied by gestures and face expressions. After a trip of many days, they were captured and carried to the village of another tribe. To cut it short, they succeeded in escaping with some smouldering embers placed in a container full of ash. As they fled, they were followed by a girl of the tribe of which they had been prisoners, who fell in love with one of them. Anyway, they did not want her following them and they threw stones at her. This girl was from a tribe which used spoken language. She was trying to speak with her new friends, but in response received stones. After more than a month of absence, the expedition finally returned to its own village which was located near a marsh. At the sight of the exhausted members of the expedition, the whole tribe runs toward them to welcome them, but their rejoicing causes them to fall in the water and extinguish the burning embers that the poor men succeeded to bring home with so much travail and sacrifice.

The disappointment was extreme and the depression into which the tribe fell could not be deeper. Not to speak of the chill and rain which where ruthless to body and spirit of the tribal members. As they retreat into an icy cave, to protect themselves from the rain and the wind, the girl who followed the expedition home realizes the situation. She tries to say something, but nobody understands her, so she takes something from a pocket and she begins to rotate a round stick on a piece of wood. After an instant of curiosity, the members of the tribe turned their backs on her. Of course, after a short time, a wisp of smoke rises from the wood, a smell of burning spreads in the air and excitement quickly spreads through the tribe numb with cold. Soon, embers are caught in a tuft of dry grass. The girl blows on it and the embers expanded till a flame springs from it. While the flame brightens the livid faces and limbs, the enthusiasm reaches a peak. The movie ends on this high note.

Clearly, that girl coming from a more advanced tribe knew how to light a fire. But at that time, lighting a fire was not such a simple thing like it is now. When you light the flame of a cigarette lighter, remember that in this act which lasts an instant is contained an important chapter of our history. This chapter starts hundreds of thousands of years ago, when our ancestors shared with animals the fear of fire. Passed through the domestication of fire by other primitive men who learned to feed it, to use it to warm themselves, to cook and to prepare tools, and finally they also learned to light it when they needed it. This adventure quickened its run with the invention of new techniques like the recent flint-lock and matches.

However, the human adventure of fire also means the conquest of more and more high temperatures like those needed to cook food, to melt tin and copper to make bronze, to fire clay to obtain earthenware, to fire pottery with white paste, to produce ceramics, to melt and work steel... until the temperatures of millions of degrees needed to light the fusion nuclear plants which are now under development. At that point, we will attain the temperatures of the stars.



- a straight and round stick to be used as drill (lime, horse chestnut,
hazel, etc.);
- a board (birch, poplar, lime, etc.);
- a curved branch to be used as bow;
- a strong and flexible rope, or better a strip of buckskin;
- a flat stone;
- some wax or fat or soap;
- some tinder: the mushroom Fomes fomentarius or the fluff of cattails
(Typha latifolia) or carbonized cotton or cotton treated with potassium
- some dry grass.

You should avoid using conifer wood. In fact, this wood is resinous and it is not suitable for lighting fire with this system. Fibrous wood is not
suitable either.

Figure 2 - Components of the bow fire starter.



- make some blind holes along the border of the board;
- near each hole, make a notch to collect the embers;
- on one face of the stone, make a cavity to hold the upper extremity of the stick;
- smooth this cavity using fine sand or abrasive powder;
- make the bow with a branch and a flexible rope.


Figure 3 - Board with holes and grooves.
The piece of leather serves to collect the embers.



- put a few drops of wax in the cavity of the stone;
- mount the rope on the bow and wrap it two or three coils around the stick;
- insert the rounded end of the stick into one hole of the fire board;
- grasp the stone and insert the top of the stick in its cavity
- put a strip of leather under the groove to collect the embers;
- kneel down and with a foot hold the fire board steady;
- while grasping the stone, moderately push down on the stick;
- move forwards and backwards the bow, causing a quick rotation of the stick;
- when you see some smoke, you must continue working the bow to accumulate some embers;
- when you stop, gather the embers on the leather and put them on some tinder;
- gently blow the embers and put them on a tuft of dry grass;
- continue to blow in order to feed oxygen to the embers;
- when you see flames, stop blowing and allow it to take hold naturally.


Figure 4 - Move the bow back and forth to cause the to stick rotate.

Do not expect to succeed in lighting a fire on the first attempt. You need a lot of practice and patience to be successful.


If you strike a piece of pyrite (iron sulfide: FeS2) sharp and hard against a piece of flint, sparks will shower from the impact point. If you send these sparks on a suitable tinder, you can catch embers. By placing these embers on a tuft of dry grass and blowing on them, you can create flames. This system has been used since primitive times to light fires. The first firearms were provided with a device based on pyrite and flint for igniting the gunpowder. With the invention of steel metallurgy, it has been possible to replace the pyrite with this metal, however it has been only since the beginning of the 17th century that the firing devices started to use the flint and steel set. At that time, rifles and pistols were made with a spring device which caused the flint strike sharply against a piece of steel called a frizzen. The sparks which were produced ended on a little bowl full of gunpowder, igniting it, then the combustion went on in a thin hole which arrived in the main powder chamber where the gunpowder ignited and propelled the bullet.

The first time I meet Mr Tomaselli was in the spring of 2004, at the Mineral Show of Bologna. He showed a crowd of children and adults who thronged around him how primitive men made stone tools, how they prepared ochre based colors and how they could use them to paint their face or to make paintings. He had a lot of instruments which reproduced prehistoric tools, like the pump drill which you can see in figure 9. He also showed how primitive men lit fires using the bow and drill system and the flint and steel technique. In short, he had an extensive laboratory of experimental archaeology. That occasion was also the first time I saw first hand lighting a fire with the bow and drill method, a demonstration which cost Mr Tomaselli a good deal of sweat. In fact, lighting a fire using primitive methods is always a challenge. He told me at that time that before his first success, he made many attempts and finding suitable materials to build the components and for the tinder was a part of the challenge. He also spoke to me about the flint and steel system of fire lighting and he sent me the pictures of the figures 5, 6, 7 and 8 which show some steps in the use and manufacture of a steel striker.


Figure 5 - Mr Tomaselli while working steel strikers with hammer and anvil. In the background, behind the hammer, notice the forge used to bring the steel to the temperature of about 800°C needed to soften the steel and render it workable. In the foreground, there is a bucket of water to quench the hot steel.


Figure 6 - A second picture of the hot working of the steel striker. Notice the pieces of coal and the smouldering coals in the forge.


Figure 7 - A steel striker. Its shape allows you to grasp it and to use it while avoiding injury to your fingers.


Figure 8 - Sparks bursting from the shock of a steel against a flint. The percussion of a piece of steel against a hard surface like the flint causes a rapid heating of the metal fragments which fly away from the impact. Due to their high temperature these tiny fragments of steel emit light, oxidize with the air and can cause the ignition of inflammable materials. If you catch sparks like these on a suitable tinder, you can create embers which you can grow and spread by blowing gently on them. As the tiny coals grow stronger, you can add a tuft of dry grass to further feed the embers and finally cause flames appear.

Often, Mr Tomaselli made lessons of Experimental Archaeology to schools and museums. To have more information, visit his website:


The pump drill can be used both to light fire and to drill holes. In this last case, the stick has to be supplied with a tip of stone or of metal according to the material to be drilled. Always remember that to scratch (and drill) an object, you need a harder material. The stick can also be without a hard tip, but in this case you must place sand or another abrasive powder between the stick and the surface to be drilled. During this work, now and then you must add water.

Ancient Egyptians used bow drills. They were even able to drill holes of comparatively large diameter in hard materials like granite and basalt by using a copper tube as a drill and sand as an abrasive. In the bibliography, you can find a link to a website which describes this technique.

A variation of the bow drill is the pump drill. Figure 9 shows how this tool is built and used. It is set in rotation by the alternative upward and downward movement of the horizontal pole which is bored in the middle. This instrument, provided with a hard tip, was used as a drill, while with a tip in wood could be used also to start a fire.

Besides the bow and drill method to light the fire, our predecessors used other techniques, some of which were based on the friction of wooden materials and others on the percussion of flint.

Figure 9 - Pump drill used to drill a hole in some wood.



By replicating ancient tools and by using them, it is possible to learn more than it is possible to understand by simple observation. On the basis of this principle, Experimental Archaeology was born. This discipline intends to replicate and use objects of the past with the aim to better understand how they were fabricated and used and how people of that era lived. My attempts to light a fire with a Paleolithic method allowed me to rediscover elements of this tool like the stone with the socket and the lateral groove made near the holes in the fire board. Before, I didn't notice these details in the pictures I saw. Experimental Archaeology is such an interesting discipline that there are people who attempt to live for years in the same conditions as our ancestors during the middle ages and even in more ancient periods. In Brittany and in England, people tried to carry and to raise stones which weighed several tons, like those which are part of ancient megalithic buildings. Archaeologists built machines like those which the Romans used to build the bridge to cross the Rhine. People fabricated crossbows, catapults and ancient ships. In other cases, whole battles have been reconstructed. In bibliography, I put some links to websites dedicated to Experimental Archaeology. On the Internet, literature on Experimental Archaeology is abundant.


The manufacturing of the Paleolithic lighter and of the pump drill leads us towards another charming discipline: the History of Technology. This discipline goes along the technological journey of man to describe the tools, the instruments, the discoveries and the inventions that he made since the earliest times until today. The text on this topic by C. Singer, which I put in the bibliography, is very well written and has a wealth of illustrations. Unfortunately, it is also out of print, but you can find it in libraries and often it is sold on the Internet. Many other works have been published on the same topic and you can easily find them. There are also books which treat limited topics like the history of metallurgy, ceramics, glass, paper, etc.

Among the different and interesting steps in the history of fire and firemaking, there are the firing devices for firearms, the invention of sulfur matches, the invention of the mechanical sparking device for small gas lighters, and also the piezoelectric systems used in small cigarette lighters and in gas burning appliances like barbeque grills and water heaters. I hope this article inspired you to look for other information on the different steps along the path of our conquest of fire and of the use of high temperatures by man.


Contemporary man is accustomed to enjoy many comforts, often without even asking himself how they have been developed, how people lived before and what sacrifices were paid along the way. A banal gesture causes a flame spring from a lighter and we do not even think how this invention is wonderful and what there is behind it. We press on a button and here a bottle of fresh water appears. By pushing on other buttons, we can obtain a coffee, some milk, a snack, etc. Once, to find some drinking and fresh water, especially in desert lands, was not so simple a matter. Sometimes, it may have been necessary to fetch water from a river infested by crocodiles. In order to have some milk, it was necessary to convince an animal to be milked. It was not possible to convince a female buffalo by pulling on its tail, but it was first necessary to invent the breeding of animals and to keep them inside enclosures. To arrive at conveniently packaged snacks, it was necessary to have first invented agriculture. That sounds simple enough, but you had to till the soil, to sow grain, cultivate it, collect it, grind it, knead the floor, cook it... In brief, we didn't arrive quickly to the buttons. So, when you push a button, at least try to think what there is behind this simple gesture. This reckoning back in time will give greater depth to your thoughts and also to your own acts, by connecting you in some way with our ancient roots and it will help you to be better aware of our place in the march of time.

The civilization of the button has made us lose some manual ability. By trying to recreate and use ancient techniques, we realize that to obtain satisfactory results it is not sufficient only to possess a good dexterity. It is also necessary to be able to use the tool properly and effectively, along with a good dose of experience, astuteness, patience, ability to understand what is not working and how to remedy a problem. In our not so distant past, to obtain something cost hard work and skill. Today, instead, many things do not cost us anything and by consequence we do not appreciate them either. If you tried to build something and then you see the same object made by other people, immediately you feel interested to observe it and learn something to improve your own skills of fabrication. If a more creative or more lucky person introduces an innovation, this improvement will quickly spread. It is in this way that techniques evolved to this day.

With a video game, we can play at big game hunting. We can try the excitement of the safari... or at least we believe so. But, to be face to face with lions and defend yourself with a lance as the Masai are able to do, undoubtedly would be more realistic and it would render excitement of a completely different kind. Hunting a bison in prehistoric times was not like doing it in an electronic game. It was not sufficient to be able to pursue the prey, but it was also to be able to quickly run away when a wounded and angry prey was pursuing you. By these simple and obvious reflections, you can guess how the life of primitive men was undoubtedly harder than ours, but it was also much more immediate and real. My own impression is that to live as primitive men, not only is greater strength and dexterity necessary, but also much more intelligence than what we need today for living as men in the day of the button and of the piezoelectric gas lighter.

BIBLIOGRAPHY  Laboratory of Experimental Archaeology (Laboratorio di Archeologia Sperimentale).  Movies on different ways to light the fire.  Firemaking Techniques  Fire by Friction Making Fire with different methods  Bow and Drill Fire Starter  Four Different Drilling Devices  Ancient Egyptian Stoneworking Tools and Methods  Fire Lighting Using a Fire Bow Drill (methods and materials)  Fire Making  Fire Bowdrills (wood selection, etc.) The Firepiston: Ancient Firemaking Machine

Charles Singer, A History of Technology (7 voll.), Clarendon Press, London, 1954 Firearm (Wikipedia)

Internet keywords:
friction fire, fire making, bow drill fire, experimental archaeology / archeology, history of technology, flint steel firearms

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