|22 March 2011
Did Neanderthals discover fire?
Our Neanderthal ancestors may not have been as stupid as we have been lead to believe. It is widely accepted by archaeologists that the major technological achievements of early humans were the manufacture of stone tools and the control of fire.
A new study has been made of the latter by Professor Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University, Netherlands and Paola Villa, curator at the University Of Colorado Museum Of Natural History. They examined possible sites for the control of fire, dating from 1.6 million years ago to 35,000 years ago.
This review covered up to 141 potential sites and involved extensive research of European excavation sites as well as a vast amount of research in libraries all over Europe and the United States, and they compiled an ‘index of confidence’ for each site, based on their findings. The key factors in the assessments were the presence of charcoal, heated stone artifacts, burned bones, heated sediments and hearths. They concluded that if a site had a minimum of two of these markers then they classed the site as having solid evidence of the control of fire.
Some striking conclusions have emerged from this research. The first is that the earliest believed sites in Europe for the control of fire date from 400,000 years ago, with evidence of an ancient hearth in England and another in Germany. This puts the first use of controlled fire in Europe squarely in the hands of Neanderthals. After this date the evidence of hearths and fires increases rapidly. But more striking than that is the fact that ancient man migrated into Europe over a million years ago. So, for the first 600,000 years they survived without fire and questions now need to be answered on how they survived the harsh winters.
The co-authors believe that earlier evidence could be down to lightning strikes or spontaneous fires. Palaeoanthropologist Lawrence Straus of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque believes that their findings mean rethinking our beliefs on evolution "As things stand, their evidence, or lack thereof, really questions this ambitious theory that fire made humans".
Edited from Nature News, EurekAlert! (14 March 2011)
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