3 Apr

The significance of the controlled use of fire has always been recognized by archaeologists.  Fire is important for a number of reasons:

  • It offers protection from predators.
  •  It greatly expands the range of climates that people can successfully live in.  Humans could not have “gone global” without it.
  •  It makes meat easier to consume and more easily digestible.  If less energy is necessary to digest food, that energy can be applied elsewhere.
  • It extends the day (or active hours) and creates more social time.  The warmth of a fire hearth draws people together to a central location where they can bond, share information, and tell stories.

And many more…   Taming fire is a big deal in the human story!  Richard Wrangham (2009) wrote a book called Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human that elaborates on the wonders of fire.  But when, exactly, fire was first controlled (400,000 years ago?  750,000?) is less clear.  It’s not even clear which hominin species (Homo erectus or Homo sapiens) first achieved this revolutionary cultural adaptation.

An article published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences sheds light (pun intended) on these fundamental issues.  The authors of the study used some very sophisticated laboratory techniques to provide “unambiguous evidence in the form of burned bone and ashed plant remains that burning events took place in Wonderwerk Cave during the early Acheulean occupation, approximately 1.0 Ma” (Berna et al. 2012:1).

So we have a new location associated with the earliest controlled use of fire: Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa.  We have a chronometric date: about 1 million years ago.  And we have a likely hominin species: the date and Acheulean occupation indicate Homo erectus.  Undoubtedly, continued research will reveal an earlier “earliest,” but, “To date, to the best of our knowledge, this is the earliest secure evidence for burning in an archaeological context” (Berna et al. 2012:1).

One Response to “Fire!”

  1. Mr WordPress 12/03/2010 at 9:42 pm #

    Hi, this is a comment.
    To delete a comment, just log in, and view the posts’ comments, there you will have the option to edit or delete them.

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