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Humans Learned to Harness Fire Only 350,000 Years Ago, Study Shows

Posted December 16, 2014

While most scientists agree that fire played a key role in human evolution, the exact time when it was mastered and came into widespread use has puzzled researchers for a long time. Some anthropologists believe it happened as early as 1.5 million years ago, while still in Africa, but the heated clays and charcoal fragments used to support this hypothesis can be easily attributed to natural bush fires.

New study shows our ancestors mastered fire only 350.000 years ago. Image source: Wikipedia, License: Public Domain.

New study shows our ancestors mastered fire only 350.000 years ago. Image source: Wikipedia, License: Public Domain.

Now, however, a group of archaeologists from the Zinman Institute of Archaeology of the University of Haifa in Israel, claim to have found evidence which dates the mastery of fire by early humans to only 350.000 years ago.

Dr. Ron Shimelmitz and his colleagues went to Israel’s UNESCO-protected Tabun Cave, which was demonstrated to have been inhabited by humans for around 500.000 years.

There, the team examined around 43.000 tools and pieces of flint debris, which previously belonged to the cave dwellers, and found that some of them were discoloured, cracked and had small round depressions, indicative of being burned. After analysing over 100 layers of sediment, the researchers found that fire-exposed debris comes only from the layers that are no more than 350.000 years old.

The fact that wildfires rarely spread into caves gives credence to the suggestion that these flints were burned by early humans.

According to Dr. Ron Shimelmitz, this could lead to a better understanding of human culture and behaviour: “Understanding the time frame of this technological mutation will help explain aspects of our anatomical evolution and encephalisation over the last million years. It will also provide an important perspective on hominin dispersals out of Africa and the colonisation of temperate environments, as well as the origins of social developments such as the formation of provisioned base camps.”

There are some who believe that fire was instrumental in human evolution around two million years ago and contributed to the development of larger brains, but most experts agree that the early uses of fire were probably opportunistic rather than intentional.

“While the earliest evidence of fire associated with hominin activities is much older, the data presented here indicate that fire became a regular and constant part of hominin behavioural adaptations in Eurasia only after 350.000 years ago.” said Dr. Shimelmitz.  He thinks that the benefits of fire could only have begun to be reaped when its use shifted from opportunistic – such as exploiting bush fires – to habitual. “Regular use of fire changed hominin existence and influenced the direction of evolution in our lineage in a diversity of ways. To the extent that humans’ physical, cognitive and social evolution was affected by the emergence of habitual fire use, we should be able to trace evidence for such impacts most clearly in the hominins that inhabited the landscape over the last 350.000 years ago.”

Their findings were published in Volume 77 of the Journal of Human Evolution.

Original research paper: Ron Shimelmitz et. al., ‘Fire at Will’: The Emergence of Habitual Fire Use 350.000 Years Ago, Journal of Human Evolution, Volume 77, December 2014, pages 196-203. DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2014.07.005

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