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Earliest fire sheds light on hominids

Ancient hearths unveiled as nearly 800 millennia old.

Fire gives warmth, cooked food and ways to improve weapons. Credit: © Photodisc

You could travel back 790,000 years and still find someone to light your fire: archaeologists have collected evidence that early humans mastered fire much earlier than previously thought.

There is already good evidence for hearths that are 250,000 years old, and it was widely believed that the first controlled handling of fire occurred 400,000 to 500,000 years ago.

But an analysis of burned remains carried out by Naama Goren-Inbar of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and her team now proves that fire was tamed at least 300,000 years earlier than that.

The researchers have spent the past 15 years unearthing and sorting sediments at a site called Gesher Benot Ya'aqov in Israel. The site is of particular interest to archaeologists because it was an old crossroads between Asia and Eurasia. It is also waterlogged, which means that any ancient remains are extremely well conserved.

The team sorted flint and wood from the 790,000-year-old site into burned and unburned material. They found that burned material made up less than 2% of the total and was concentrated at specific locations in the site, suggesting the fires that created it were started and controlled by early humans.

Goren-Inbar sees the study as a breakthrough in terms of understanding the evolution of hominids: the fact that they were using fire so early tells scientists a great deal about their abilities and behaviour at the time.

Hearth desire

As well as providing protection against wild animals, fire would have enabled hominids to cook their food, stay warm during the winter and possibly improve their weapons.

Chris Stringer from the Natural History Museum in London, UK, suggests that the use of fire would have enriched the hominids' social lives too. People may have gathered around camp-fires, staying awake longer and interacting more than before.

He also points out that this first use of fire correlates with the time that hominids are thought to have entered colder areas such as Europe and Northern China, suggesting that fire helped hominids to explore environments that were previously too hostile.

Goren-Inbar's analysis suggests that, as well as using fire, inhabitants of the site in Israel were collecting plant food, hunting and processing meat.

The team plans further analysis of the site's material to determine which species of hominid was responsible for the fires. Homo erectus, Homo ergaster and Homo sapiens were all around at the time, and all were able to walk upright, had large brains and were already using tools made of stone.

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Neumann, N. Earliest fire sheds light on hominids. Nature (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/news040426-16

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