“Was the discovery of fire really the greatest of all human technological achievements?”

I took a day off from work to visit ‘The Cradle of Humankind in Maropeng, South Africa’ - the site where some of the earliest ancestors of modern humans were born. This experience inspired the following thoughts:

A landscape image consisting of grey mountains in the background, grasslands in the foreground and the silhouette of a tree while the sun sets casting a pink-red-orange hue over everything.

Disclaimer: I’ve been feeling quite heavy-hearted and weighed down by all the world’s events in recent weeks. Climate change, war, inequality, media disinformation. It’s been overwhelming and I’ve felt helpless and disempowered. Unable to disassociate from the suffering fellow humans have been experiencing and from the heartache of witnessing a disappearing biodiversity. Simultaneously aware that, in the bigger scheme of things, there’s very little I can do to effect change.

And even if I could, what would I do? “When you’re lost…” Writes Lesley Green, author of ‘Rock | Water | Life’ - “you retrace your steps, as best you can. Go back to places you’ve seen before; exploring the routes in and through them again. Ask: how did we get here? What pasts are present, and what futures are forming? What connections exist that I didn’t see before?”

No longer able to bear the heaviness, I decided to take a break from typing away at my computer and instead, follow Green’s advice. Quite literally. I went right back to the presumed start of human evolution. About an hour’s drive outside Johannesburg, South Africa, lies an area known as ‘Maropeng’ or ‘The Cradle of Humankind’ named for its abundance of fossils of many hominids and associated animals that date between 1.5 and 3 million years. Significant, because these traces of fossils have provided scientists and researchers with critical clues that have helped solve many of the historical mysteries around evolution.

The landscape consists of rolling hills that stretch out far into the distance covered by a carpet of gold-yellow-green described as the “Rocky Highveld Grassland.” An area which supports a great diversity of plants and animals, many of which are now rare and endangered. Somewhere in the midst of all this lies a strip of about a dozen dolomitic limestone caves called “The Sterkfontein Caves.”

After a brief foray into a museum that boasts interactive features and stories explaining the theory of evolution, you don some hair-nets and hard-hats and a guide leads you through a steep passage into a series of caves, ducking and diving through tiny little passages that anthropologists and paleontologists have been excavating and documenting for over a hundred years.

I forgot about all the world’s problems for a moment and found myself completely enthralled. These caves hold the stories and memories of people that we come from but can’t remember. There’s an underground lake lapping around your toes, the sound of water dripping - a hollow echo reverberating throughout the dark space, also the sound of bats flapping their wings at random. “Be careful,” says the guide, “occasionally snakes slip and fall from the ceiling.” I gulp.

I’m quite scared of things that don’t have legs. “Don’t worry,” he reassures us, “they’re quite harmless. We like helping them back out. They wouldn’t be able to survive here otherwise.” He goes on to tell us many other stories. Like, about how divers have attempted to explore all the mysteries of the underground lake but despite having dived to depths of 40m still haven’t reached the bottom. “That’s so scary… There’s just so much that we don’t know” said the lady standing next to me.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working on a series of articles centered around “Agile processes and vulnerability.” It may not seem like an obvious link at first but I’m interested in how the work processes we choose to support production of work are often symbolic and reflective of the values we hold dear to such a degree that they are also the very enabler of the everyday application of these values.

For example, at Unboxed, “openness and transparency” is a core value. But when you dig deeper, you see that “openness and transparency” cannot exist without an environment that first facilitates ‘psychological safety’ and the boundaries of ‘psychological safety’ cannot be tested without there first being a willingness toward vulnerability. And an unwillingness toward ‘vulnerability’ is often less reflective of an individual’s enthusiasm and loyalty and more reflective of their very human need to keep themselves safe.

See, despite all these millions of years of evolution and development, the very same primal drivers that dictated the attachment responses of the hominids that lived in these caves are still the same drivers embedded into the physiological limbic systems influencing the social and behavioral patterns we see within community groups across the world today.

Martyn and I had been discussing all of this during the course of working on this article series. “It’s all a bit of a catch 22, isn’t it?” We concluded. You can’t think about ‘openness and transparency’ without first understanding the nature of vulnerability. The very many layers of vulnerability cannot be deciphered unless you’re thinking about safety - and you can’t think about safety without first contrasting the feeling of safety with the feeling of impending threats to safety, perceived or otherwise.

And then you sort of dip down into outcomes produced as a result of history, psychology and disposition. And how in a team of 30-40 people, you might have 30-40 completely different experiences. What feels like safety to one person can be threatening to another and vice versa. It’s all very messy and complex.

So we put systems in place such as “agile processes” that facilitate a consistent practice of “making yourself vulnerable” through ceremonies like “show and tells,” “retrospectives” etc. In the hope that eventually, with enough repetition, trust is built and associations like “threat” “fear” “distrust” are eliminated from team and stakeholder dynamics entirely.

Reflecting on his career, Martyn had said to me: “I used to feel quite vulnerable in my position… People were coming to me constantly and expecting me to be able to solve their problems, have the answers to their questions and provide a certain amount of certainty around outcomes, how we’re going to achieve them, when we’re going to achieve them and how much they’re going to cost. I’d felt constantly vulnerable and afraid that I would be exposed as a fraud, as unprofessional, as not trustworthy.

Feelings so typical of imposter syndrome. In occupational psychology, when we speak of imposter syndrome it’s often in association with a presumption around not feeling “good enough,” “worthy enough” or “deserving enough.” But as I stood inside that cave, straining my eyes, trying to see into the darkness beyond the water lapping around my feet, I wondered if, in truth, this sense of “imposter syndrome” really is less an issue to do with self-esteem and more of a deeply embedded instinct trying to remind us of the infinitude of everything about the world we still have yet to discover.

Martyn continued: “We work in a particularly complex environment. Things are constantly changing. I’ve learnt that I can relieve myself of fear by accepting that I don’t know all the answers. That I can’t know all the answers. That I’ve never been here before. That you have a unique problem but we can put some things in place to help you and help me - help us - get to the outcome you’re looking for. This has been my great epiphany. That it’s okay for me to say: I don’t know the answers… I’m lost here as well. But, I do know of some strategies to help us get through it.”

Snapping away from my thoughts and back into the present moment, it was at this point in the cave tour that the guide shone his torch through a barely human-in-foetal-position sized crevice in the rock. “Right, so does anyone here have any issues with claustrophobia? Well, too bad. You’ve signed the disclaimer. You’re just going to have to face your fear.

The group of us knuckled down onto our hands and knees. Encased by a cold, wet, hard-faced darkness we crawled and crawled until we got out onto the other side. Light streamed in through trees guarding the entrance to the cave. A stone pathway carried us further and further until we reached a terrace resting on an escarpment that displayed a magnificent view of the grasslands beyond the cave: “The Rocky Highveld Grassland” that I mentioned earlier.

On this terrace was a monument dedicated to the humans who discovered fire. The inscription below the monument read: “Human ancestors from planet earth set foot upon African soil. They took small steps and giant leaps for all humankind. They learnt how to control fire. This controlled use of fire by human ancestors represents a small technological step that lead to the giant leap towards lunar and interplanetary exploration. Celebrated in 2001 A.D.

History books have documented this learnt ability to control fire as the earliest and greatest of all achievements in that this discovery is still fundamental to the mechanisms that power our vehicles, airplanes and rocket ships but I found myself questioning the truth of this fact.

Walking further along the stone pathway that had now turned to wood - a circular route that would eventually lead back to the museum - I found another plaque that read: “The Rocky Highveld Grassland is a ‘fire climax grassland.’ Lightning strikes frequently, often sparking veld or wildfires. This may have facilitated the initial harvesting and later controlled use of fire by hominids in the area, 1-million or more years ago.

It was at this point that my imagination began to run wild. Looking out at that landscape I was imagining what it must have been like and I couldn’t imagine it as anything less than terrifying for those earliest humans. Now you imagine - hold this image in your mind’s eye:

Out of the big, black sky suddenly a flash of blinding light and deafening sound strikes the ground. As though the big, black sky had been cracked open and something far beyond it had reached out towards the earth. And then… The smell. Burning, burning - heat. Fast approaching. It spreads across the grasslands swallowing every tree, plant and blade of grass in its wake. There was no one to tell them but something deep and instinctual in the pit of their bellies knew what they needed to do. RUN!

Without hesitation, the humans we descended from ran and ran, their chests burning as hot as everything around them. Then, drawn by the cool, moist air they found themselves lured to the shelter of the caves. Enveloped by darkness, they submerged their scorched bodies into the ice-cold water of the underground lake and waited until they could no longer hear the painful crackle and pop of everything above them burning.

In today’s age, we now know that fires are good for ecosystems and that they play an important role in maintaining the balance of trees and grass. But 1 million years ago, language had not yet developed. There were no such things as science, technology, politics, economics - words or explanations for things. Strategies or frameworks. At this point in history, we were all just a one type of people huddled together in the same cave shaking for fear of nature’s raw elements. But the emotion of ‘fear,’ of ‘terror’ is still the same emotion of ‘fear’ and ‘terror’ we feel today, albeit in response to different triggers. And do you know what the most remarkable thing is? The true feat of human technological achievement?

When those humans first saw that same glint of light similar to what they had seen strike from the sky as rock smacked against rock producing the first smoulder of controlled fire - where there initially must have been a feeling of terror reminding them of the destruction and devastation they would have needed to have run from before… Something else took its place. A strange and new feeling bubbling in their chests causing them to override their initial instincts and instead to look a little closer, dig a little deeper, add a little more wood to the flame…

That feeling is still the same feeling we feel today while trying to pursue answers to questions that seem completely beyond our scopes of practice and experience. It’s a feeling we call ‘curiosity.’ Our greatest achievement is not that we learnt to wield fire but that we learnt to superimpose the emotion of fear with curiosity. And it’s this same ability to ‘be curious’ that lies at the heart of every technological achievement, invention and discovery - the benefits of which we still enjoy to this day.

Now more than ever before, in times of great overwhelm - where the problems we face socially, politically, economically and environmentally seem too big, too complex, too messy - now, more than ever before - is the time to to be curious, to play - to look at these problems that seem terrifying and to be light-hearted in spite of them. I stood in front of that monument, looked across those grasslands and took a quick moment to acknowledge gratitude.

The best thing for being sad,” T.H White had written in his novel, The Once and Future King, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then - to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”

Breathing deeper, feeling lighter - the weight of the world no longer heavy on my chest - I skipped all the way home, sat back down at my computer and began to type...

Statue of man holding the fossil skeleton of one of the first hominids discovered in the Sterkfontein Caves. The statue stands in front of the entrance to the cave.