New Study on Early Human Fire Acquisition Squelches Debate

Just when this momentous acquisition of knowledge occurred has been a hotly debated topic for archaeologists. 
 (Image: via   pixabay  /  CC0 1.0)
Just when this momentous acquisition of knowledge occurred has been a hotly debated topic for archaeologists. (Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Fire starting is a skill that many modern humans struggle with in the absence of a lighter or matches. The earliest humans likely harvested fire from natural sources, yet when our ancestors learned the skills to set fire at will, they had newfound protection, a means of cooking, light to work by, and warmth at their fingertips.

Just when this momentous acquisition of knowledge occurred has been a hotly debated topic for archaeologists. Now, a team of University of Connecticut researchers, working with colleagues from Armenia, the UK, and Spain, has found compelling evidence that early humans such as Neanderthals not only controlled fire, but also mastered the ability to generate it.

Co-author Daniel Adler, associate professor in anthropology, said:

Their work, published in Scientific Reports, pairs archaeological, hydrocarbon, and isotope evidence of human interactions with fire, with what the climate was like tens of thousands of years ago.

Using specific fire-related molecules deposited in the archaeological record and an analysis of climatological clues, the researchers examined Lusakert Cave 1 in the Armenian Highlands. Gideon Hartman, associate professor of anthropology and study co-author, said:

The research team looked at sediment samples to determine the abundance of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are released when organic material is burned. One type of PAH, called light PAHs, disperses widely and is indicative of wildfires while others, called heavy PAHs, disperse narrowly and remain much closer to the source of fire.

Lead author Alex Brittingham, a UConn doctoral student in anthropology, said:

Evidence of increased human occupation at the site, such as concentrations of animal bones from meals and evidence of tool making, correlated with increased fire frequency and the increased frequency of heavy PAHs. Researchers also needed to rule out the possibility that unsettled weather, which gives rise to lightning, had ignited the fires.

To do so, they analyzed hydrogen and carbon isotope composition of the waxy cuticles of ancient plant tissues preserved in sediments. The distribution of these leaf waxes indicates what kind of climate the plants grew in.

They could not find any evidence of a link between overall paleoclimatic conditions and the geochemical record of fire, says Michael Hren, study author and associate professor of geosciences. Hren said:

By pairing the climate data with the evidence found in the archaeological record, the researchers then determined the cave’s inhabitants were not living in drier, wildfire-prone conditions while they were utilizing fires within the cave.

In fact, there were fewer wildfires for these ancient humans to harvest at the time when fire frequency and heavy PAH frequency was high in the cave, says Brittingham, adding:

Brittingham is now applying the same research techniques to analyze other caves occupied by early humans. He is currently working with a team in Georgia, among other locations, to determine whether fire was developed independently by groups in different geographic areas. He asked:

Provided by: Elaina Hancock, University of Connecticut [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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