Early, microscopic evidence for human control of fire

Which human species first controlled and used fire has been debated for as long as archaeologists began to realise we had a long and complex ancestry. Because sites can easily be contaminated by charcoal from natural fires it has been difficult to present convincing evidence. But there is a way to get believable data. Stone tools and fragments from their manufacture may have fallen in fires set by hominins, and show changes caused by intense heating. One such example comes from a long-occupied site in Israel (Alperson-Afil, N. 2008. Continual fire-making by Hominins at Gesher Benot Ya‘aqov, Israel. Quaternary Science Reviews, v. 27, p. 1733–1739). Nira Alperson-Afil of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem investigated small flint artefacts, probably flaked off during tool making, from eight levels excavated at the site. In all of them some flint shards showed signs of extreme heating, such as discoloration, crazing and tiny bowl-shaped pits (‘potlids’) resulting from exfoliation of hot flint surfaces. The features are reproduced by experimental heating of flint shards, and do not occur in those that have not been heated above 300ºC.

Gesher Benot Ya‘aqov was first occupied around 790 ka, by Homo antecessor, and the excavation levels may span around 100 ka. The site is the earliest to provide convincing evidence not only for the use of fire, but that it was a continuous part of the hominins’ culture: they could make it at will. Alperson-Afil suggests that fire making may have been an integral part of the Acheulean culture, well known for finely crafted biface axes, since its inception around 1.6 Ma ago. Ambiguous evidence for hominin fire use, such as burnt bones and reddened sediments, has been found at several sites in Africa dated between 1 and 1.5 Ma. Alperson-Afil’s meticulous micro-forensics should help African archaeologists and those working at very old sites left by migrating hominins in Georgia and Asia to check whether fire has such a long-lived place in our evolutionary history.


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