A new study of artifacts found in a cave in Israel suggests that human beings began using fire at will around 350,000 years ago, with earlier uses likely more opportunistic than controlled.
Learning how to make fire at will is an accomplishment for ancient humans paramount to sending a man to the moon in modern times. However, up to now, no particular consensus has been reached regarding exactly when early humans gained control over fire and the ability to start fires when they needed to. A new study published this week in the Journal of Human Evolution suggests that early humans learned to use fire at will about 350,000 years ago.
This new information challenges some standard notions, including that the control of fire was necessary to facilitate the development of bigger brains as well as the migration of hominids into colder climates. The discovery of evidence for fire control at 350,000 years has the implication that larger brains and migrations to colder regions of the planet both happened before humans acquired a mastery of fire.
The team of researchers, led by Ron Shimelmitz, an archaeologist at the University of Haifa in Israel, analyzed artifacts collected earlier from sedimentary layers in the floor of the Tabun Cave located about 24 kilometers south of Haifa. Specifically, Shimelmitz and colleagues examined flints for evidence of burning or scorching at various levels of the cave’s sediment layers.
The Tabun Cave, which was declared highly important by UNESCO a couple years ago, has well-dated layers of sediment that are thought to cover some 500,000 years of human history. The researchers found a sudden appearance of burned flints at around 350,000 years ago and more recently but very few older than this.
The authors of the report reasoned that since wildfires rarely occur in caves, the appearance of burnt tools likely indicates the development of controlled fire use. Hominids probably used fire before this time in a more opportunistic fashion, they suggest.