We don't know the identity of the experimenter or experimenters in the Acheulian culture in Africa who discovered how to start, control and utilize fire about 790,000 years ago. But their mastery of rapid oxidation was one of the most important developments that sustained the survival and spread of humanity, according to Nira Alperson-Afil, a member of an Israeli archaeological team that found the earliest evidence of human ability to make and control fire at will.
The invention equipped early humans with a scary deterrent -- flaming torches -- to protect them and their vulnerable young from predators. It also provided a source of warmth that helped them to survive temperature downturns. Additionally, the ability to cook animal flesh and vegetation increased food choices for humans and helped them to avoid malnutrition. Perhaps more than any other invention, fire was the breakthrough that enabled humans to multiply and spread across the planet's surface. As Alperson-Afil told Science Daily in 2008: "The powerful tool of fire-making provided ancient humans with confidence, enabling them to leave their early circumscribed surroundings and eventually populate new, unfamiliar environments" [source: Science Daily].
Today, we've progressed beyond gathering around the campfire and gnawing hunks of charred mammoth haunches. But the ability to burn fuel remains a crucial part of our continued existence. Without it, we'd have difficulty cooking, and a hard time living in Massachusetts or Minnesota, let alone Alaska. We'd also have to spend a lot of our time cracking and shaping stones by hand to make tools. After all, it was fire that made it possible for Neanderthals to develop metallurgy 300,000 to 400,000 years ago [source: Sherby and Wadsworth].