Middle-eastern Prometheus

Several articles over the years in EPN have referred to the phenomenal movement of humans from Africa to much higher latitudes in Asia, from as early as 1.8 million years ago.  Although that migration must have been a gradual diffusion rather than with any purpose, even in interglacial periods it took our ancestors into chilly winter climes.  Many palaeoanthropologists have sought evidence for controlled use of fire that would have made survival more likely, but until recently little concrete signs have been found before the last glacial epoch.  Israeli scientists, who have worked on an Acheulian site in the Jordan valley, found evidence of much earlier fire use (Goren-Inbar, N. et al. 2004.  Evidence of hominin control of fire at Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, Israel.  Science, v. 304, p. 725-727).  A 34 m thick sequence of sediment on the shore of an ancient lake contains several tool-bearing horizons, in each of which they found flint artefacts that show signs of having been burned.  There are also fragments of burnt wood.  Were the burned remnants widely distributed they could be accounted for as the result of wildfires, but they occur in clusters.  That strongly suggests hearths and a human origin.   The age of the sequence is indicated by the layers that contain tools and evidence of controlled use of fire lying just above the Brunhes-Matuyama geomagnetic polarity reversal, whose end is dated at 790 thousand years ago, when the most likely inhabitants were Homo erectus.  The thickness of sediment containing the layers with signs of human activity suggests several tens of thousand years occupation of the site.  Some of the burnt vegetation is of edible species.  However, despite finds of animal bones that show signs of having been processed for food, there are no burnt bones.  So, fire may have been used for comfort, but there is no proof of cooking.

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