Evidence of Pre-Human Fire Usage Found

    April 2, 2012

A team of archaeologists studying caves in South Africa have announced their findings that human ancestors were using fire to cook long before humans evolved.

The study, to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows traces of wood ash along with animal bones and stone tools in an area dated to one million years ago.

“The analysis pushes the timing for the human use of fire back by 300.000 years, suggesting that human ancestors as early as Homo Erectus may have begun using fire as part of their way of life,” said Michael Chazan, a University of Toronto anthropologist and co-director of the project.

The excavation project involves the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa, where this evidence of fire use was found. Wonderwerk Cave is a large cave system near the edge of the Kalahari desert where evidence of human occupation had previously been found. The project is international, led by the University of Toronto and Hebrew University.

Evidence of fire usage was found by a research project doing analysis of material excavated from Wonderwerk Cave. The team found ashed plant remains and burned bone fragments in sediment from the cave. They also found evidence of surface discoloration consistent with burning.

A view from the excavated portion of Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa

The Abstract for the study reads:

The ability to control fire was a crucial turning point in human evolution, but the question when hominins first developed this ability still remains. Here we show that micromorphological and Fourier transform infrared microspectroscopy (mFTIR) analyses of intact sediments at the site of Wonderwerk Cave, Northern Cape province, South Africa, provide unambiguous evidence—in the form of burned bone and ashed plant remains—that burning took place in the cave during the early Acheulean occupation, approximately 1.0 Ma. To the best of our knowledge, this is the earliest secure evidence for burning in an archaeological context.

The study states that although it had been suspected that human ancestors, including Homo erectus, used fire, it had not been confirmed in any way until now.

“The control of fire would have been a major turning point in human evolution,” said Chazan. “The impact of cooking food is well documented, but the impact of control over fire would have touched all elements of human society. Socializing around a camp fire might actually be an essential aspect of what makes us human.”