Who started the first spark? Learn more about the history of fire

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Ricky Joseph

Humans' ability to control fire is among the most important technological advances in evolution, but which of our human ancestors was able to create fire? This is an age-old puzzle in the history of fire.

How did fire come about?

Conventional thinking claims that our human ancestors gained control of fire - and the ability to create it - very early in prehistory.

According to many researchers, this view of the history of fire arises from the discovery of a handful of sites in Africa with millions of years' worth of fire residue. And it was also driven by logic: it's hard to imagine that our ancestors left Africa and colonized higher latitudes without fire.

But more recent evidence from several archaeologists and anthropologists - such as fieldwork published on the Sapiens website and the Scientific American website - indicates that the use of fire by hominids consisted of several stages of development that may have lasted hundreds of thousands of years. (Image: UnifiArt/Pixabay)

What is the origin story of fire?

From the same point of view, the assumption is that, during the first stage, our ancestors were able to interact safely with fire.

Research in chimpanzees by Jill Pruetz, a primatologist at Iowa State University, has studied the interaction of chimpanzees with forest fires in West Africa.

Chimpanzees watched the progress of the fire and then foraged in the burned area. They understand how fire moves across the landscape and use this knowledge to their advantage.

In similarity, we can imagine this behavior in small groups of our earliest ancestors, perhaps the australopithecines, who lived from about 4 million years ago to about 2 million years ago in East Africa.

This first stage may have persisted through much of prehistory.

The second stage would be the power of people to control fire, when they still obtained it from natural sources, such as fires.

For example, at the famous Chinese Zhoukoudian site, what was originally thought to be the fire remains of 700,000-year-old Homo erectus turned out to be natural coal-like sediments and ash.

Perhaps most importantly, the earliest fire remains were found in outdoor environments - not inside caves - reinforcing that they may not be the remains of hominid campfires, but rather produced by natural fires.

So when did our ancestors figure out how to make fire?

This chapter in the history of fire remains an open question.

Between 2000 and 2010, a research team, consisting of three Palaeolithic archaeologists and two geoarchaeologists, excavated two Middle Palaeolithic sites: Pech de l'Azé IV and Roc de Marsal, in the Périgord Region of southwestern France.

Chimpanzees understand fire behavior. (Image: Jill Pruetz)

These are caves that were used as a camp by small groups of Neanderthals from 100,000 to 40,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens, modern man, arrived in Europe.

In those caves they had abundant evidence of the use of fire, but not that fire was made by Neanderthals.

Abundant use of fire was in lower deposits, those resting on the rocky cave floor where individual fires were built 100,000 years ago. The evidence is that thousands of stone tools were accidentally burned by nearby fires.

Except that none of these sites showed signs of fire in their upper layers, in which were thousands of stone tools and animal bones. If fire were present, these objects would be burned.

It was clear then that fire had hardly ever been used at these sites in later periods.

In conclusion, the common notion has always believed that fire was "discovered" and already became part of everyday life. Therefore, Neanderthals knew how to make fire.

Except that the evidence from these sites has questioned that notion.

With information from Sapiens and Scientific American.

Ricky Joseph is a seeker of knowledge. He firmly believes that through understanding the world around us, we can work to better ourselves and our society as a whole. As such, he has made it his life's mission to learn as much as he can about the world and its inhabitants. Joseph has worked in many different fields, all with the aim of furthering his knowledge. He has been a teacher, a soldier, and a businessman - but his true passion lies in research. He currently works as a research scientist for a major pharmaceutical company, where he is dedicated to finding new treatments for diseases that have long been considered incurable. Through diligence and hard work, Ricky Joseph has become one of the foremost experts on pharmacology and medicinal chemistry in the world. His name is known by scientists everywhere, and his work continues to improve the lives of millions.