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Fire use in Prehistory

16 March 2011
A paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on March 14th has an interesting article on fire use by early humans – and is the result of extensive research and access to libraries and excavation reports across Europe and North America. Neanderthals appeared at around 400,000 years ago and they ranged over most of Europe as far as Central Asia as well as the Near and Middle East regions. Now, whereas the use of stones as tools goes back millions of years, based on geochronology and radiometric dating methodology, the use of fire by early humans is less certain. It requires the survival of evidence of charcoal at camp sites. Stone is enduring – we know little of wooden implements and generally, organic material rots away – and presumably evidence for fire is also inclined to fade. Hence, there is considerable dispute over when fire was first used by humans – and even this paper says that Homo heidelbergensis, their remains have been found at Happisburgh in Suffolk, just outside Lowestoft, did not use fire, in spite of presumably chilly nights. The authors have concluded that habitual use of fire by humans began with the Neanderthals. For example, they produced a sticky liquid from the bark of birch trees in order to haft wooden shafts to axes and stone tools in general. To do this they peeled the bark and set fire to it – but in a hole in the ground that was covered up by stones and earth as absence of air was necessary for the process. Neanderthals also cooked food – including plant material.
The story was at www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-03/uoca-nwn031111.php – but be quick as their stories disappear after a few days.
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