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K. Kris Hirst

Peking Man and the Use of Fire

By March 17, 2009

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Recent radio-isometric dating of quartzite artifacts found in layers in which the Peking man Homo erectus fossils at the Locality 1 at Zhoukoudian were recovered have indicated a date of 680,000-780,000, back from a previous estimate of 400,000 or so (the date's been long debated, no point in yammering about that now).

Peking Man Skull Fragments, American Natural History Museum
Peking Man Skull Fragments, American Natural History Museum. Photo by
Ryan Somma

The interesting thing, I think anyway, is that it would have been cold in China then; and that means that H. erectus must have figured out how to stay warm—using clothing of some sort or, dare I say, fire, that long ago. The earliest recognized possible use of fire that I'm aware of has been recorded at the Gesher Benot Ya'agov site in Israel, about 790,000 years ago and variously attributed to H. erectus, H. ergaster and H. sapiens.

Evidence for the use of fire at Zhoukoudian has taken its lumps over the years, and there is some supported evidence for burned bone in association with quartzite tools, but ashy hearths and really convincing evidence are not present.

More on Zhoukoudian and Fire

Shen, Guanjun, Xing Gao, Bin Gao, and Darryl E. Granger 2009 Age of Zhoukoudian Homo erectus determined with 26Al/10Be burial dating. Nature 458:198-200. Abstract free, article for-pay.

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Added 3/18: Paleoanthropologist Russ Ciochon kindly reminded me that Zhoukoudian is not, in fact, a place where H. erectus lived, but rather a secondary deposit. That doesn't rule out the use of fire—there still are burned bones associated with the stone tools—but it makes the association even less convincing, since the original provenience of those bones is not well understood.


March 23, 2009 at 4:12 pm
(1) S McGregor says:

To quote the website: ‘The earliest evidence of human usage of fire comes from various archaeological sites in East Africa, such as Chesowanja near Lake Baringo, Koobi Fora, and Olorgesailie in Kenya. The evidence at Chesowanja consists of red clay sherds dated to be 1.42 million years (Ma) Before Present (BP). Reheating on the sherds found at the site show that the clay must have been heated to 400°C to harden.
At Koobi Fora, sites FxJjzoE and FxJj50 show evidence of control of fire by Homo erectus at 1.5 Ma BP, with the reddening of sediment that can only come from heating at 200—400°C.’

Since our ancestors survived against the odds, this early date seems entirely probable to me.

March 23, 2009 at 6:31 pm
(2) John Kamola says:

Finding burned bones or other residues of fire does not prove that Peking man was able to was able to start flint spark fire another quantum intellectual jump.

1)Could someone educate me and let me know where and when the earliest flint spark fire was invented?

2) I asked NYC Museum of Natural History about the shape of Zhoukoudian Man incisors???

I went two years to their exhibition about early man but Zhoukoudian casts were not displayed and lighting of others was terribly weak and misdirected.

Thanks for your help
John Kamola

March 24, 2009 at 3:53 am
(3) G Avery says:

On the basis of experimentation CK(Bob) Brain argued for the use of fire at Swartkrans (“Cradle of Humankind”), some 1.5 Ma, which was occupied variously by Paranthropus and Homo

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