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The Discovery of Fire - Two Millions Years of Campfire Stories

Human-Controlled Fire Use


Camp Fire

Camp Fire

Hearths from Bolomor Cave Level 11

Hearths from Bolomor Cave Level 11 (Middle Paleolithic site in Spain, (~225,000-240,000 years old)

© Bolomor Team 2011
Excavated Hearth Altar at Caral Peru

Excavated Hearth Altar at Caral Peru

Se Xauxa

The discovery of fire, or, more precisely, the controlled use of fire was, of necessity, one of the earliest of human discoveries. Fire's purposes are multiple, some of which are to add light and heat, to cook plants and animals, to clear forests for planting, to heat-treat stone for making stone tools, to keep predator animals away, to burn clay for ceramic objects. Undeniably, there are social purposes as well: as gathering places, as beacons for those away from camp, as spaces for special activities.

The human control of fire likely required a cognitive ability to conceptualize the idea fire, which itself has been recognized in chimpanzees; great apes have been known to prefer cooked foods, so the very great age of the earliest human fire experimentation should not come as a terrific surprise. 

Discovery of Fire

The controlled use of fire was likely an invention of our ancestor Homo erectus, during the Early Stone Age (or Lower Paleolithic). The earliest evidence for fire associated with humans comes from Oldowan hominid sites in the Lake Turkana region of Kenya. The site known as Koobi Fora (FxJj20, dated 1.6 million years ago) contained oxidized patches of earth to a depth of several centimeters, which some scholars interpret as evidence for fire control. At 1.4 million years of age, the Australopithecine site of Chesowanja in central Kenya also contained burned clay clasts, in small areas.

Other Lower Paleolithic sites in Africa that contain possible evidence for fire include Gadeb in Ethiopia (burned rock), and Swartkrans (270 burned bones out of a total of 60,000, dated 600,000-1 million years old), and Wonderwerk Cave (burned ash and bone fragments, ca. 1 million years ago), both in South Africa in South Africa),

The earliest evidence for controlled use of fire outside of Africa is at the Lower Paleolithic site of Gesher Benot Ya'aqov in Israel, where charred wood and seeds were recovered from a site dated 790,000 years ago. The next oldest site is at Zhoukoudian, a Lower Paleolithic site in China dated to about 400,000 BP, Beeches Pit in the UK at about 400,000 years ago, and at Qesem Cave (Israel), between about 200,000-400,000 years ago.

In a paper published in Nature in March 2011, Roebroeks and Villa report their examinations of the available data for European sites and concluded that habitual use of fire wasn't part of the human (meaning early modern and Neanderthal both) suite of behaviors until ca. 300,000 to 400,000 years ago. They argue that the earlier sites are representative of opportunistic use of natural fires.

Indirect Evidence

In 2013, Terrence Twomey published a paper in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, which included a comprehensive discussion of the early evidence for human-controlled fire at 400,000-800,000 years ago, citing Gesher and the newly revised dates for Zhoukoudien level 10 (780,000-680,000 years ago). Twomey agrees with Roebroeks and Villa that there is no direct evidence for domestic fires between 400,000 and 700,000 years ago, but believes that other, indirect evidence supports the notion of controlled use of fire.

Twomey's argument is based several lines of indirect evidence. First, he cites the metabolic demands of relatively big-brained Middle Pleistocene hunter-gatherers, and suggests that brain evolution required cooked food. Further, he argues that our distinctive sleep patterns (staying up after dark) are deeply rooted; and that hominids began staying in seasonally or permanently cool places by 800,000 bp. All of this, says Twomey, implies effective control of fire. 

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