Control of fire by early humans

If you found yourself empty handed in a forest, out on the savannah, or up on a mountain, would you be able khổng lồ start a fire just with the rocks, soil & wood around you?

How would you bởi vì it? Would you rub two sticks together lượt thích you’ve seen in the movies?


Would you play around with smashing different kinds of stones together until the right combination threw off sparks? How long might you try until you gave up if it didn’t work?

And perhaps most importantly: why would you vày it? khổng lồ keep yourself warm? Cook food? Keep dangerous animals away?

“Fire is fundamental to the human condition – everybody today uses fire, we just don’t see it as often because we hide away in factories & internal combustion engines, but everything we have around us is based on fire at the most basic level,” says archaeologist Andrew Sorensen of the University of Leiden.

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Fire is fundamental to lớn the human condition – everybody today uses fire, we just don’t see it as often"

Yet are we the only hominins (humans) capable of creating và harnessing this powerful force? The myriad questions surrounding when, why, where, & how our ancestors first made fire are intellectually tantalizing yet infuriatingly difficult lớn answer.

“We know fire plays a gigantic role in human evolution, but we just don’t have any clear smoking guns that tell us when humans figured out how to start a fire at will – it’s just not clear,” says Francesco Berna of Simon Fraser University in Canada who excavates Early Stone Age sites in South Africa and Israel.

It all starts in a cave

In 2012, Dr Berna reported in the journal PNAS that his team had unearthed traces of burnt bones & ashed plant remains in the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa, which they estimated to lớn be a million years old. At the time, they believed these were the earliest 'unambiguous evidence' for hominins controlling fires. The culprit would have been one of the progenitors of our species, either Homo ergaster or Homo erectus. But now he says he has found traces of fire that are even older from the same cave, which they date khổng lồ between 1.6 & two million years ago – their results will be published in the coming year.


But being able to use fire is not the same thing as being able to make fire.

Using fire vs making fire

Dry weather và lightning spark natural fires routinely – one only has to look at the forest fires in California last year, or the blazes on England’s moors this summer lớn see how easily they can spread for days, even weeks.

Archaeologists reason that long before any of our ancestors or relatives figured out how lớn make fire from scratch they would have captured flames from wildfires using branches or another woody fuel. Even birds are known to vì chưng this. For example, just this year, the New Scientist reported that Australian scientists had observed raptors plucking flaming twigs & dropping them further afield lớn flush out prey.

Early hominins would have taken things lớn the next màn chơi by capturing flames from a wildfire, bringing them lớn a contained hearth, và keeping a fire going by continually adding fuel. Our ancient ancestors Homo habilis, và possibly Australopithecus, would have maintained fires in this way at the two-million-year-old site Berna investigates, he says.


Most of the oldest sites in Europe that indicate regular fire use range between 300,000 và 400,000 years old, though a handful of sites are even older, notably Qesem in Israel, approximately 780,000 years old, and Cueva Negra in Spain, 800,000 years old. But these only indicate fire use – not fire creation.

So just when did we make the leap from simply capturing và maintaining fire to creating it from scratch?

Does the ability to lớn make fire define our species?

This is where the debate becomes more complex, confusing - & controversial. Scientists aren’t just keen to lớn understand the when, where, how và why – they also want to lớn know who could make fire.

The standard thinking goes that only Homo sapiens knew how to lớn create fire. If this is true, it would make fire creation one of the things that define our species.

Biologists have long sought khổng lồ understand what it means lớn be human by identifying what traits could be unique to us – such as language, theory of mind, or concept of time.


But time và time again zoologists have found evidence of supposedly “human” traits in other animals, including dolphins, chimpanzees, birds and even cephalopods.

Could the ability lớn make fire be uniquely human? It has been argued that our species is an “obligate” fire user – all civilisations depend on it in some form for heat, food, & light. Our relationship with fire is even written into our genes: in năm 2016 researchers identified a genetic innovation, the “AHR” gene, that protects us against the carcinogenic effects of wood smoke. This genetic innovation seems khổng lồ have made our cells 1000 times more resilient to the carcinogenicity of the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Neanderthals did not possess this gene.

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Neanderthals used fire, but could they create it?

Our cousins, it would seem, could use fire, but not make it on a constant basis. “At some Neanderthal sites you find hearths that have absolutely enormous amounts of ashes, which implies they had to lớn keep a fire going constantly because they didn’t know how khổng lồ start it again if it went out,” says Berna.

Professor Dennis Sandgathe, also of Simon Fraser University, agrees. “Neanderthals clearly used fire – there is no question about that,” he says. “But we’re saying that they didn’t need fire.”

Sandgathe says that the shorter, stockier Neanderthals would have been better adapted to lớn cold climates than Homo sapiens. Their bulkier bodies would have lost less heat, meaning Neanderthals could have coped more easily than us with glacial periods in modern-day Europe.

When wildfires spread due khổng lồ hot weather và lightning storms, Neanderthals would have captured their flames and used them for cooking and crafting tools. In 2006, Italian scientists reported in the Journal of Archaeological Science evidence from the Campitello Quarry just south of Florence that Neanderthals used fire to lớn create birch bark pitch to adhere flint shards lớn wooden handles. This year, another group of Italian archaeologists reported in the journal PNAS the discovery, elsewhere in Tuscany, of what they believe lớn be the oldest multipurpose tool ever found: 170,000-year-old wooden 'digging' sticks created by Neanderthals who used fire to lớn more easily strip bark off branches.

Though they clearly used fire, Prof Sandgathe argues Neanderthals were incapable of making fire on their own. His excavations of Neanderthal sites at the Roc de Marsal in France, described in the journal PaeloAnthropology in 2011, reveal more traces of fire from interglacial periods than glacial ones.

Why would Neanderthals use fire less during cold periods? Because there are more thunderstorms and more dry vegetation to lớn spark wildfires during warmer periods. If Neanderthals could make fire, they would have done so to lớn a greater degree during cold times, leaving more traces of fire in the fossil record during glacial periods. But we do not, says Prof Sandgathe, therefore Neanderthals could not make fire at will.

“We are at pains to ức chế this: we are not suggesting that if Neanderthals couldn’t make fire that means they were cognitively inferior – not at all,” he says. “There is nothing obvious about the fact that rubbing sticks or smashing rocks will create sparks or flames. Making fire is something you have to lớn learn. It’s not an indication of cognitive ability.”

More recently, in a number of papers published in 2017 in the journal Current Anthropology, Sandathe reviewed all the evidence to lớn date & in particular the presentations at a năm ngoái symposium on fire use by hominins, & he maintains that the most likely answer is still that Neanderthals could not make fire.

“We vì chưng not think that Neanderthals were dumb, & we get very peeved with colleagues who think that is what we are saying,” he says. “They weren’t dumb – just different.”

There is ample evidence that Neanderthals were hardly the brutish, dim-witted ogres we once believed them lớn be. More recent discoveries have indicated they ritually buried their dead, carried medicines such as aspirin and penicillin, wore manganese dioxide body paint, had larger brains than us, và created cave paintings long before humans had even arrived in Europe.

Still, argues Sandgathe, they could not make fire from scratch. & it was the mastery of fire by humans that allowed them to colonise Europe & eventually out-compete them.

“Neanderthals were anatomically adapted to cold climates – but they never fully managed to reach northern latitudes like humans managed to,” agrees Berna. “They basically disappear at the peak of the last glaciation, when modern humans came in & thrived. This could have been because we alone controlled fire.”

But not everyone agrees

Dutch archaeologist Professor Wil Roebroeks of the University of Leiden says evidence suggests European Neanderthals could not only create fire, but were just as adept as us at using it. He says the evidence suggests Neanderthals were creating birch bark pitch using fire tens of thousands of years before humans at Pinnacle Point in South Africa used it lớn fashion tools.

After finding unusually large numbers of chunks of manganese dioxide at the Pech-de-l'Azé site in France, in năm nhâm thìn Prof Roebroeks proposed in Nature Scientific Reports that Neanderthals would have used the đen mineral not for body toàn thân decoration or art, traditionally imagined uses for the material, but for creating fires.

Manganese dioxide – commonly used today in fireworks – lowers the ignition temperature of wood from 350C to 250C, meaning that sprinkling a bit of the mineral onto a pile of tinder makes it easier khổng lồ start a fire. If they were indeed creating fires in this way, it pushes the date of fire creation by Neanderthals to 200,000 years ago.

It might seem slightly far-fetched to imagine that our thick-browed cousins would have this understanding of chemistry, but Andrew Sorensen of the University of Leiden agrees.

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“Fire is such a useful tool, which improves so many aspects of daily life. If you can figure out any easier way to make it, you will go out of your way to maintain that method in the future,” he says.