New Zealand Skeptics walk happily on red-hot embers, protected by the laws of physics. Fijian firewalkers, however, are said to stroll across white-hot stones. How do they do it?
Fijian firewalking is an ancient tradition. It was originally confined to a few villages on the island of Beqa (pronounced Mbengga). The ceremony achieved fame with a demonstration for visiting European dignitaries in 1885.
As John Campbell explains in Skeptic 15, firewalking is explained by science, not mysticism. Although the firewalker’s skin is in contact with glowing carbon at a temperature of around 700oC, very little heat energy is transferred. No injury occurs because though the surface of the charcoal is at this temperature, the charcoal has a low heat capacity and heat is not conducted through it sufficiently rapidly to raise the skin temperature to a dangerous level. Each foot only contacts the hot charcoal twice for a brief instant. Of course, if skin and hot carbon were in contact for longer, or if the walker attempted to take too many steps on the hot coals, burns would ensue. Faith in one’s firewalking abilities has no effect on the outcome.
Several published accounts of the Beqa firewalkers describe a ceremony with features that cannot be accounted for by this explanation. Many of these descriptions are rather informal (as well as unbelievable). Others are by anthropologists interested in rituals and beliefs associated with the ceremony. These describe human behaviour in minute detail until it gets to the part which would most interest a physical scientist. Some writers seem unaware that they are describing events which are commonly thought impossible.
Accounts agree that flat stones or rocks are heated using wood fuel in a fire-pit. The wood is then raked away, leaving the stones glowing white-hot. After various rituals, the walkers enter the pit and walk round and round on the glowing stones. The men (only men can do this!) have anklets of dried leaves; afterwards neither these anklets nor the soles of their feet show any effect from the heat.
According to Beqa: Island of Firewalkers (published by the Institute of Pacific Studies), the men even gather in the centre of the pit and chant! If these accounts are reasonably accurate then we are dealing with a miracle.
About 1960 the villagers of Rukua on Beqa discovered that firewalking had commercial potential. The income of this village jumped from about $400 per year to about $6500 with this discovery, and other villages quickly followed their example. Contracts with tourist hotels guaranteed $400 per performance.
The original ceremony had involved the whole village. Firewalkers had to respect certain tabu — in particular, abstinence from all sexual contact for a period of one month. Costumes were made and burned afterwards. About six tonnes of firewood were consumed.
It was quickly discovered that costumes could be modified so that they could be re-used and a much smaller fire satisfied the tourists. If the walkers abstained from sex for only two weeks they were not injured by the smaller fire — this seems quite logical.
More hotels featured the ceremony and teams performed twice a week. The sexual abstinence tabu was reduced to one night or dropped altogether.
Traditionally the fire pit was large. Beqa: Island of Firewalkers contains some photos from the thirties and I have an old postcard of the ceremony. These suggest the hot area was around five metres in diameter (the pits are circular) and the walkers may have needed ten or a dozen steps to cross the hot stones.
The modern pit is about 2.5 metres, but in the two examples I have seen, the hot area was less than two metres in diameter. Apparently the cost of firewood is a big problem.
I have a postcard showing the preparation of a fire pit for a modern performance. The caption reads, “the fire-walkers the cross the pit walking on the white-hot stones.”
Skeptics can safely walk on red-hot charcoal, but “white hot” implies much higher temperatures. For example, mild steel is tapped from a furnace at about 1600oC. This molten metal is glowing brightly but it looks yellow rather than white.
Rock, unlike carbon, has a high thermal capacity, that is, it stores plenty of heat energy which can be released to human skin. This implies that hot rock is more hostile to human feet than carbon at a similar temperature.
Anybody with some knowledge of science should be dubious of the published accounts of Beqa fire-walking. Could the rocks really be white hot?
The anklets worn by the walkers provide a clue. If dead leaves were brought close to an object radiating at a temperature high enough to be glowing white, they would burst into flames. In fact, human skin could be damaged before contact.
Examining the Pit
In Fiji, I have twice had a good look at a fire-pit immediately before the ceremony. When the fire was dying down, any unburnt wood was raked aside and the stones brushed clear of glowing embers. White ash covered the stones which lay in a bed of glowing charcoal. They were so close together that little of the hot charcoal could be seen, but the white sides of the irregular rocks reflected the glow in a spectacular fashion. The rocks themselves were not glowing.
Obviously, the rock upper surfaces were at a temperature well below the 700oC of glowing carbon. This could explain why the Beqa people can stand relatively prolonged contact. The modern walkers cross the pit, circle round the edge and re-cross. All the tourists I have questioned agree on that point. I am sure anybody could do the same.
The photographs I have of the old ceremony with the large pit do not show any activity that could be construed as “walking round and round in the pit.” The old postcard shows a line of about fifteen people, some holding hands. About four or five are crossing the hot rocks. The rest appear to have crossed and are circling back around the edge.
In the pit they seem to be taking short steps, and perhaps few people have feet that could stand such lengthy exposure. However, these people probably never wore any kind of footwear. Certainly some modern Fijians can stand barefoot on a sun-heated surface that would cause me pain.
On the other hand, it is doubtful that Beqa people could have crossed such a large pit, so slowly, if they had had to walk on glowing charcoal rather than the relatively cool rock.
So how did this myth arise, that Fijians could walk barefoot across white-hot rocks?
Poor observation and inaccurate reporting, plus the will to believe, seem adequate explanations. The rocks are certainly white as they are covered in white ash; they are certainly hot, as they are heated in a fire. They are not, however, white-hot.