First Fire


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Paola Villa of the University of Colorado, Boulder, agrees: The paper "provides very strong evidence of the use of fire by early humans," she says. Others caution that the possibility of natural fires can never be entirely excluded at such an ancient site. If the claim is substantiated, it may help explain how early humans were able to push into the chillier climate of Europe after , years ago. Thus it may be no coincidence that the earliest substantiated early human sites in Europe also begin to appear right around , years ago.

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By Martin Enserink Sep. By Jeffrey Mervis Sep. By Jocelyn Kaiser Sep. Ancient fire has left holes in this burned grass seed from Israel. How to contact the news team.

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Remote solar observatory reopens after mysterious evacuation By Adam Mann Sep. Momentum builds for joint U. Just as at Pech IV, the oldest layers at Roc de Marsal contained abundant evidence of fire, including dozens of intact hearths so well-preserved that they looked like they could have been abandoned just days before. W e were not surprised to find signs of fire at these two sites, since other, even older sites also offered good evidence of fire. H owever, other evidence from these sites soon led us to question that notion. For one, neither site showed signs of fire in its upper layers.

At the same time, however, almost none of the thousands of stone tools and animal bones we found in these upper layers were burned. If fire had been present, these objects would have been altered by the heat. Erosional processes like wind and water, after all, cannot selectively remove burned objects and leave behind unburned ones. It was clear, then, that fire had almost never been used at these sites in the later periods. Research our team conducted at Roc de Marsal revealed that the oldest layers of occupation contained abundant evidence of fire.

T his seemed strange, especially because the older layers dated to a warm climatic period, while the more recent layers—the ones without fire—were deposited between 70, and 40, years ago, a time of increasing cold as glaciers again spread across much of Europe.


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This raised some really interesting questions: Why did Neanderthals stop using fire during cold periods, when the need for warmth would be most important? And if they were using fire only in the warm periods, what were they using it for?


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Cooking would be one possibility, but then why did they not cook their food during the colder periods? H aving fires in warm periods and not in cold periods made little sense. While trees are much more common during warmer periods, animal bone, which is also an effective fuel and was used for the fires at Pech IV , is abundant during both warm and cold periods.

This leaves one possible explanation: The Neanderthals at this time were still in the second stage of interacting with fire—they were collecting naturally occurring fire when it was available but did not yet have the technology to start fires themselves.

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I t is well-known today that natural fires from lightning strikes occur much more frequently in warm conditions—whether in more temperate places or during warmer parts of the year. Similarly, lightning would have been much more prevalent during the warmer phases of the Pleistocene Epoch which lasted from roughly 2. If the Neanderthals lacked the ability to start fire themselves and could thus only obtain it from natural fires, then we would expect to find much more evidence of hearths during warmer periods and less during colder ones.

Which is why it is likely that Neanderthals had not yet entered the third stage of interacting with fire.


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  8. That technological development occurred either elsewhere or at a later time. Evidence from both Pech IV and Roc de Marsal suggests that Neanderthals did not have fire during the coldest time periods. T he evidence from Pech IV and Roc de Marsal clearly shows that the Neanderthals at these sites lived without fire not only for long periods but also during the coldest periods. This alone raises even more questions about how they were able to survive. There is no clear evidence that they could make clothing although some researchers today seem to think Neanderthals were likely making some articles of clothing , even if they were very crude , so perhaps an old theory about Neanderthals—that they were really hairy—is correct.

    This notion, from the early s, was discarded in later decades because it was seen as dehumanizing Neanderthals. It might also mean that they relied more on food—especially meat—that did not need to be cooked. S o while we are obligate fire users today—we could not survive without fire in some form—Neanderthals, according to our research , had no such dependence.

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    Perhaps fire dependency arose later, in the Upper Paleolithic 40, to 10, years ago , and it is almost certain to have existed by the time agriculture developed at the beginning of the Neolithic period roughly 10, years ago in the Middle East. But there is still much we do not know. I f chimpanzees can effectively interact with wildfires, can we assume that the same was true for some of the earliest hominins, such as Australopithecus afarensis?

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    When did our hominin ancestors first start to collect burning material and carry it back to their campsites, as portrayed in Quest for Fire and as probably practiced by Neanderthals? And, of course, when did humans first learn how to make fire? These are just a few of the mysteries that remain unsolved. T he ability to take advantage of the properties of fire is one of the most important technological advances in our evolutionary past. What we are realizing now, however, is that it was not the result of a single accident or stroke of genius. It was, instead, a process that likely unfolded over hundreds of thousands of years.

    And for the Neanderthals, the process was punctuated by periods of intense cold in which, when the benefits of fire would have been greatest, they simply had to make do without it.

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    T oward the end of Quest for Fire , a young Homo sapiens woman teaches a small group of Neanderthals how to start a fire by using the hand-drill technique to create an ember. While it is certainly possible that modern humans developed fire-making technology before arriving in Europe, and perhaps even shared it with Neanderthals, such a scenario remains, at this point, pure speculation. This article was republished on The Atlantic. Chris Standish and Alistair Pike. Jill Pruetz W e surmise that during the first stage, our ancestors were able to interact safely with fire; in other words, instead of simply running from it, they had become familiar with how it works.

    Vera Aldeias O ne of the more interesting discoveries we made during our years of excavating Pech IV was strikingly abundant evidence of fire use.

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