Why are humans still drawn to fire after thousands of years?

On a cold winter's evening there are few things more inviting than a roaring fireplace. The flickering flames draw us in and capture our attention.

Humans have long been drawn to fire; our ancient ancestors used it for warmth, protection and cooking.

In fact, fire was critical for our evolution.

But thousands of years later, with all our modern electric lighting and cooking facilities, fire has become a comfort rather than a necessity in the developed world.

So why then are humans still fascinated by fire?

One suggestion is that humans are born with an instinct to learn how to build and control fire, and if we don't get the chance to master it, we remain attracted to it as adults.

"If you were a child born 10,000 or 50,000 or 100,000 years ago you needed fire to survive — you had to learn how to master fire," Daniel Fessler, professor of anthropology at the University of California in Los Angeles, said.

Building and controlling fire a learned skill

According to Professor Fessler, humans do not instinctively know how to produce and control fire — it is an ability that must be learned.

"What you burn as fuel and how you build a fire isn't the same from one place to another," he said.

"For example, dried pine wood doesn't resemble dried camel dung at all, and neither of them are like whale blubber, and yet those are all things that people use as fuels to burn.

"So just like how children easily and rapidly learn about dangerous animals and are very interested in dangerous animals, so too they seem very prone to learn about and engage with building a fire using locally available materials."

But most Westerners no longer learn how to start, maintain and use fire during childhood, and Professor Fessler said as a consequence we developed a curious attraction to it.

"If people don't ever satisfy the learning mechanism, that is they don't get enough experience at an early age, it's sort of a hunger that never goes away," he said.

"In a natural environment, that is a world like that in which our species evolved, children would have acquired fire mastery by the time they were seven or 10 years old."

Fire 'not fascinating' when part of daily life

Professor Fessler has spent time living in traditional communities, like in Sumatra, where people rely on fire for heating and cooking.

"Fire is not a source of entertainment and fascination for people who actually use it on a daily basis," he said.

"The idea of having a fireplace in your home simply as a source of comfort or enjoyment simply doesn't make any sense to people in much of the developing world who rely on fire for heating and cooking.

"As soon as they can, they want to get away from that smoky, smelling, difficult-to-control fuel."

Should we teach our children how to master fire?

Professor Fessler said the jury was still out on whether it was better to have fire prevention programs that taught children to avoid fire, or for children to learn how to handle fire at a young age.

He is keeping a close eye on the result of a program in Germany where children aged three and four are taught how to handle fire.

"It looks like those programs are successful in that the children learn the skills set that lets them control fire," he said.

"The idea is that if we can teach the kids the skills they need so that the fire never gets out of control, then even if they play with it later, it's safe."

For now, it seems our fascination with fire will continue to burn.