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The Discovery of Fire

Human-Controlled Fire Use

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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 burn clay for ceramic objects.

Discovery of Fire

The controlled use of fire was an invention of the Early Stone Age (or Lower Paleolithic). The earliest evidence for controlled use of fire 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.

Not everybody believes that; the next oldest site is at Zhoukoudian, a Lower Paleolithic site in China dated to about 400,000 BP, 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 conclude 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.

Hearth Fire Construction

As opposed to fire, a hearth is a deliberately constructed fireplace. The earliest fireplaces were made by collecting stones to contain the fire, or simply reusing the same location again and again and allowing the ash to act as hearth construct. Those are found in the Middle Paleolithic period (ca 200,000-40,000 years ago, at sites such as Klasies River Caves (South Africa, 125,000 years ago) and Tabun Cave (at Mt. Carmel, Israel)

Earth ovens, on the other hand, are hearths with banked and sometimes domed structures built of clay. These types of hearths were first used during the Upper Paleolithic (ca 40,000-20,000 years BP), for cooking, heating and, sometimes, to burn clay figurines to hardness. The Gravettian Dolni Vestonice site in the modern Czech Republic has evidence of kiln construction, although construction details did not survive. The best information on Upper Paleolithic kilns is from the Aurignacian deposits of Klisoura Cave in Greece (ca 32,000-34,000 years ago).

Fuels

Although relict wood may have been the original fuel, other sources became important in various places with limited wood supply. In places with scarce wood resources, timber and branch wood for structures, furnishing and tools would have cut back the amount used for fuel. If wood was not available, alternative fuels such as peat, cut turf, animal dung, animal bone, seaweed, and straw and hay. Techniques for discriminating fuel from ashy remains are outlined in the Church et al. paper listed below.

But of course, everyone knows that Prometheus stole fire from the gods, the Greek myth as reported by our Ancient History guide.

Sources

This definition is part of the About.com Guide to the Lower Paleolithic.

More information on the clay hearths is available at the Klisoura Cave glossary entry.

Church, M. J., C. Peters, and C. M. Batt 2007 Sourcing Fire Ash on Archaeological Sites in the Western and Northern Isles of Scotland, Using Mineral Magnetism. Geoarchaeology 22(7):747-774.

Goudsblom, J. 2004 Fire, human use, and consequences. In International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences. Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes, eds. Pp. 5672-5676. London: Elsevier.

Goren-Inbar, Naama, et al. 2004 Evidence of Hominin Control of Fire at Gesher Benot Ya'aqov, Israel. Science 304(5671):725-727.

Karkanas, P., et al. The earliest evidence for clay hearths: Aurignacian features in Klisoura Cave 1, southern Greece. Antiquity 78(301):513-525.

Karkanas, Panagiotis, et al. 2007 Evidence for habitual use of fire at the end of the Lower Paleolithic: Site-formation processes at Qesem Cave, Israel. Journal of Human Evolution 53(2):197-212.

Roebroeks W, and Villa P. 2011. On the earliest evidence for habitual use of fire in Europe. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition:1-6.

Twomey T. 2013. The Cognitive Implications of Controlled Fire Use by Early Humans. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 23(01):113-128.

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