Controlled use of fire in a hearth from 300,000 years ago

I started this blog to consider the life and times of modern humans and assumed that that meant the last 200,000 years or so. But the evidence of admixture with Neanderthals and Denisovans – and perhaps others – means that how they separated from a common ancestor and then “recombined” at a much later time becomes increasingly relevant to the story of modern humans. Possibly the story must start around 400,000 years ago in the Palaeolithic and that takes us back some 20,000 generations.

The Qesem Cave, near present-day Rosh Ha’ayin in Israel is providing a wealth of evidence of how ancient humans lived between 400,000 to 200,000 years ago. The latest paper on discoveries at the cave provides evidence of a large hearth (4 sq. m) with repeated use from about 300,000 years ago. This is not the earliest evidence of the controlled use of fire since that comes from the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa and dates back to about 1,000,000 years ago. And all that says is that ancient humans had control of fire at the latest by that time. But this evidence from the Qesem Cave does show that by 300,000 years ago, the regular and controlled use of fire in a hearth, within a cave, had been well established.

But what is even more interesting is that by 400,000 years ago, humans were allocating different areas of the cave for different “household activities”. There is evidence of a blade production line and areas reserved for cooking. It is also quite likely therefore that particular individuals were also specialising in particular activities. The first specialised “chefs”, toolmakers, leather craftsmen and perhaps even hunters or hunt leaders may date from this time.

R. Shahack-Gross, F. Berna, P. Karkanas, C. Lemorini, A. Gopher, R. Barkai.Evidence for the repeated use of a central hearth at Middle Pleistocene (300 ky ago) Qesem Cave, IsraelJournal of Archaeological Science, 2014; DOI:10.1016/j.jas.2013.11.015

Rosh Ha’ayin, Israel (Google Maps)

Rosh Ha’ayin, Israel (Google Maps)

Weizmann Institute Press Release:

A team of Israeli scientists recently discovered in the Qesem Cave, an archaeological site near present-day Rosh Ha’ayin, the earliest evidence – dating to around 300,000 years ago – of unequivocal repeated fire building over a continuous period. These findings not only help answer the question, they hint that those prehistoric humans already had a highly advanced social structure and intellectual capacity. 

Excavations in Qesem Cave have been ongoing since 2000. The team is headed by Profs. Avi Gopher and Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University. Dr. Ruth Shahack-Gross of the Kimmel Center for Archeological Science at the Weizmann Institute has been involved in this archaeological research since excavations began, and she collects samples on-site for later detailed analysis in the lab. Shahack-Gross, whose expertise is in the identification of archaeological materials, identified a thick deposit of wood ash in the center of the cave. Using infrared spectroscopy, she and her colleagues were able to determine that mixed in with the ash were bits of bone and soil that had been heated to very high temperatures. This was conclusive proof that the area had been the site of a large hearth. ……

Rosh Ha’ayin excavation showing location of hearth - Weizmann Institute

Qesem Cave excavation showing location of hearth – Weizmann Institute

….. Around the hearth area, as well as inside it, the archaeologists found large numbers of flint tools that were clearly used for cutting meat. In contrast, the flint tools found just a few meters away had a different shape, designed for other activities. Also in and around the area were large numbers of burnt animal bones – further evidence for repeated fire use for cooking meat. Shahack-Gross and her colleagues have shown that this organization of various “household” activities into different parts of the cave points to an organization of space – and a thus kind of social order – that is typical of modern humans. This suggests that the cave was a sort of base camp that prehistoric humans returned to again and again. “These findings help us to fix an important turning point in the development of human culture – that in which humans first began to regularly use fire both for cooking meat and as a focal point – a sort of campfire – for social gatherings,” she says. “They also tell us something about the impressive levels of social and cognitive development of humans living some 300,000 years ago.” The researchers think that these findings, along with others, are signs of substantial changes in human behavior and biology that commenced with the appearance in the region of new forms of culture – and indeed a new human species – about 400,000 years ago.

Abstract: A major debate in prehistory revolves around the time and place of the earliest habitual use of fire and the hominin species responsible for it. Here we present a newly discovered hearth at Qesem Cave (Israel) that was repeatedly used and was the focus of hearth-centered human activities, as early as three-hundred-thousand years ago. The hearth, identified based on mineralogical and microscopic criteria, contains two superimposed use cycles, each composed of shorter episodes – possibly the earliest superimposed hearth securely identified to date. The hearth covers ca. 4 m2 in area making it a uniquely large hearth in comparison to any contemporaneous hearth identified thus far, possibly indicating it has been used by a relatively large group of people. In addition, the hearth is located in the center of the cave and is associated with butchered animal remains and a dense flint assemblage. The flint assemblage indicates spatially differentiated meat cutting and hide working activity areas. The central location of the hearth within the cave and the activities associated with it may reflect an embedded perception of space organization of the Qesem Cave inhabitants. Since fire was habitually used throughout the 420-200 ky sequence of Qesem Cave, where preservation conditions are alike throughout, we suggest that this unique hearth may reflect a development in nature and most probably in the intensity of fire use in Qesem Cave, from ca. 300 ka ago onwards.

About ktwop

Scientist, technologist, salesman, manager, executive and now a consultant and author.
This entry was posted in Ancestors, Control of fire, Homo Erectus, Origins of meat eating, Palaeolithic and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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