Control of Fire by Archaic Humans

The common sense suggest, that fire must have invented very early in human evolution because fire use and control offers a lot of advantages: It acts as a source of warmth, making it easier to get through cold temperatures and allowed our ancestors to survive in colder environments.  Fire also played a role how Homo sp. obtained and consumed food, primarily by the  practice of cooking. This caused a significant increase in hominid meat consumption and intake of calories.

Therefore early researchers suggested that, immediately after fire use and control was “discovered,” it subsequently became a universal and ubiquitous component of all hominin populations.

However, the history  of humans has always a way of turning out differently as evidenced by the results of excavations during the last 50 years.

First, there are some things  we will newer know:

  • Did our ancestors learn first how to tame natural fires or did they start with the invention of fire-making techniques either using friction or tools that create sparks or  techniques employing chemicals?
  • After they learned to handle fire- was this knowledge transmitted to other people as a continuous process or was the knowledge of fire making  lost after few generations and had to be reinvented again and again?

Secondly many assumptions from older textbooks are obviously wrong:

Early research often misinterpreted non-burnt sediments in search of  hominin fire use. At a number of important localities this led to the misidentification of the presence of fire, based on sediments that were in fact unrelated to burning. For example, at the site of Fontechevade in the Charente in Southwestern France patches of manganese dioxide were mistaken for charcoal, and at Zhoukoudian, China, lenses of organic matter and layers of very fine silts from Middle Pleistocene contexts were mistaken for charcoal and ash. Similar misinterpretations occurred at South Africa’s Cave of Hearths , and more recently at the the important Schöningen site in Lower Saxony. 

Goldberg, Miller, and Mentzer recently with more conceptual rigor  formalized three basic questions that should comprise the identification and interpretation of early Homo fire use: “(1) Are the sediments or objects in question actually burned? (2) If they are burned, what was the nature and context of their deposition? (3) Were they burned by hominins?”

Innovative  methods of excavation and data processing have improved the identification of latent structures like combustion areas, hearths and clusters of human activity in archaeological sites,  providing a more unequivocal evidence for fire making

Advanced micro-morphology and and micro-spectroscopy were developed that both provides evidence of fire, in the form of burned bone and ashed plant remains, even without the macroscopic presence of combustion areas.

Data about intact sediments at Wonderwerk, probed with such techniques, gave secure evidence that  burning took place  in the cave during the early Acheulean occupation, approximately 1.0 Ma. ago. Anyhow it can not be proven, that it was enflammed by human activity.

The presence of burned seeds, wood, and flint at the Acheulian site of Gesher Benot Ya`aqov (GBY; Fig 2: East African Cleaver) in Israel is also very  suggestive of the control of fire by humans nearly 800 K.A. years ago. “The distribution of the site’s small burned flint fragments suggests that burning occurred in specific spots, possibly indicating hearth locations. Wood of six taxa was burned at the site, at least three of which are edible—olive, wild barley, and wild grape”.

But: GBY and Wonderwork cave remain the only secure sites with fire use by hominins during the Early Pleistocene. The Archaeological record remains patchy and limited, without evidence that the use of fire quickly became an universal and ubiquitous component of all hominin populations.

The examples of fire use remain rare but more unequivocal during the early Middle Pleistocene in the Levant. The most impressive findings come from the excavations of the Qesem Cave, Israel, where the remains of ash and charcoal have been identified in primary deposition using micromorphological techniques. Moreover, burnt bones have been identified with certainty. Other mineralogical, geochemical, and microscopic techniques were used to identify the stable derivatives of wood ash and burnt clays.

The excavators  show that the 7.5-m sedimentary sequence exposed by excavation in Qesem Cave consists predominantly of lithified ash remains, sometimes preserving intact hearths. The Amudian deposits in Qesem Cave therefore rank among the earliest well-documented examples of the habitual use of fire. In the Yabrudian layers at Tabun cave (Figure 3: small handaxe from Tabun), fire use was also “regular or habitual” by 350–320 k.a., but burned flints were scarce or absent during at least 50 k.a.

From these data, it has been concluded that fire-building in the Levant became a regular activity at ca 400-200 k.a. and that its use was associated with an increase in human social and intellectual complexity. The control over fire may also have contributed to organizational shifts in hominid settlement and land use systems, as expressed by ‘‘home bases’’ or residential camps.

However even during  this period,  evidence of fire is sporadic. Early uses of fire may have heating, cooking/roasting, illumination, and protection from predators. The control over fire may have been important for colonizing unfamiliar cool environments although this proposition remains to be tested.

After 200 k.a. BP, the Levantine (Levallois)-Mousterian layers at sites such as the caves of Tabun, Kebara, and Hayonim (Israel), Shanidar (Iraq) show an important stratigraphial record with the presence of in situ hearths and ash levels throughout most of the layers. In Kebara cave, for example, ash layers have been well preserved through 4 m of section in the center of the cave.  Many caves present indications that social activities centered around these  hearths.

In Europe we have no secure evidence for anthropogenic fire before 400 k.a. BP. European Lower Paleolithic sites such as Dmanisi, Atapuerca, La Caune d’Arago, and Boxgrove show thousands of unburned bones but no burned materials. Early and even late Neanderthal communities often did not use fire.

It is not before the second half of the Middle Pleistocene onward (MIS5-3) that we  observe  several Middle Paleolithic cave and open-air sites with multiple successive levels representing a long time span with clear evidence of fire. For example the combustion structures in the many levels of Abric Romani in Spain and of Ksiecia Jozefa in Poland, the multiple levels of El Salt, St. Marcel, Esquilleu Cave, Peyrards, La Combette, La Quina, St. Césaire. Les Canalettes, France, is a well-documented Middle Paleolithic site where lignite was repeatedly imported as fuel from a distance of 8–10 km.

Stone-lined or stone-delimited fireplaces are not as common as in the late Upper Paleolithic but they have been documented at a number of Mid- dle Paleolithic sites: Vilas Ruivas, Les Canalettes, La Combette, Bolomor layer XIII, Port Pignot, Abri du Rozel, Pech de l’Aze II, Grotte du Bison, and Abric Romani.

Hearth- centered activities have been suggested at the rock shelter site of Abric Romani  at the open-air sites of La Folie (France) and Ksiecia Jozefa (Poland).

But we also know important exceptions from this pattern like the Quina Mousterian from the rock-shelter site of Chez Pinaud Jonzac (Charente-Maritime, France; Fig 4: Quina artifact), recently excavated, and excellent preserved, offers an opportunity to pursue issues of hunting and cocking . At Jonac at least 18 reindeers were hunted by Neandertals during the fall through winter and butchered at the site.The excavators were surprised  that “in the excavated sample, the absence of hearths and the almost complete lack of burned bones or stones suggest that Neandertals were not using fire to assist with processing the reindeer carcasses”

Jonzac is no exception. Numerous archaeological Neanderthal sites before the Upper Paleolithic challenge the cooking hypothesis because there is simply no evidence for the control of fire.

The pattern emerging  from these data seems to be clear and surprising.  Homo did not need the control of fire technology to leaf Africa and settle northern latitudes. On contrary, Homo in Europe survived without the systematic control of fire, on raw meat and vegetal food for hundreds of thousands of years. There are any clear traces of the habitual use of fire until the second half of the Middle Pleistocene. This absence of evidence, 150 yrs after intensive research can not be ignored. It was only much later, that fire-use became part of the habitual repertoire of some (not all) Neanderthal societies.

(Picture 1: source: Wikipedia; GNU Free Documentation License; User:Fir0002)

Early controlled Fire use in Africa and the Levant

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About Katzman

During my whole life I was fascinated by stone age artefacts. Not only the aesthetic qualities of these findings, but also the stories around them and the considerations arising from their discovery, are a part of my blog. Comments and contributions are allways welcome!

About me: J.L. Katzman (Pseudonym). Born in Vienna. Left Austria in 1974 and did not regret. Studied Medicine and Prehistory at a German University. Member of a Medical Department at a German University.

Copyright 2010-2017 by JLK. All Rights Reserved. You are welcome to use material in these posts so long as you cite the work.

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