Stone Age Combustion: Fire use proposed at ancient Israeli site

Our prehistoric ancestors may have been a fiery bunch. By about 750,000 years ago, the inhabitants of a lakeshore in what is now northern Israel had learned to build fires in hearths, a research team contends.

HOT STUFF. Microscopic view of a burned grain of goat grass found at Stone Age location in Israel. Goren-Inbar

For the next 100,000 years, Stone Age folk who frequented the Middle Eastern site used hearths for what must have been a variety of purposes, including staying warm, fending off predators, and cooking meat, according to archaeologist Naama Goren-Inbar of Hebrew University in Jerusalem and her colleagues.

They describe their findings in the April 30 Science.

“This is the oldest evidence for the controlled use of fire in Asia and Europe,” Goren-Inbar says.

Goren-Inbar’s team unearthed more than a dozen clusters of scorched flint artifacts at Gesher Benot Ya’aqov. They mark where hearths were located, she proposes. Investigators also found burned seeds and bits of charred wood near the flint remains.

These finds lay just above a layer of rock that contains evidence of a reversal of Earth’s magnetic field that happened 790,000 years ago. Animal bones in the artifact-bearing soil also informed Goren-Inbar’s age estimate.

The Israeli researcher doubts that wildfires burned the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov material. Such conflagrations cover large areas, but only 2 percent of excavated flint and wood fragments show signs of fire. Underground wildfires, such as burning roots, don’t get hot enough to scorch buried flint, she adds.

Fire making probably started more than 1 million years ago among groups of Homo erectus in Africa and possibly Asia, she says. Much previous debate has concerned whether burned sediment, bone, and wood found at several African sites dating to more than 1 million years ago reflect controlled use of fire. A few 100,000-to-300,000-year-old locations in Asia and Europe contain evidence of systematic fire use by people, although some of that evidence is drawing controversy (SN: 7/11/98, p. 22).

Because of Gesher Benot Ya’aqov’s pivotal age and location, the new report supports the view that controlled fire use began prior to 1 million years ago in Africa and gradually spread to other continents, remarks archaeologist John A.J. Gowlett of the British Academy Centenary Research Center in Liverpool.

It’s not known how the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov site’s prehistoric residents started fires or why they would have put flint artifacts in fires.

Archaeologist Andrew Sillen of the University of Cape Town in South Africa comments that the site’s inhabitants may have used the remnants of wildfires rather than built their own fires. Moreover, a rapidly moving wildfire could leave behind clusters of burned flint pieces, he says.

Sillen reported in 1988 that burned animal bones unearthed in a South African cave were probably heated in a campfire around 1 million years ago. However, neither that site nor any other contains a hearth or other direct evidence of controlled fire use, he notes.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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