Human evolution

When humans first used fire remains controversial

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From Amber Dance at Sapiens:

Her question is a basic one about a crucial early technology: When did humankind first put fire to work for them, using it regularly for heat and cooking? Hlubik and other archaeologists who sift through the long-cold ashes of fires past cannot say for sure. It probably wasn’t as early as 2 million years ago—but it almost certainly occurred by 300,000 years ago. That leaves a big gap, with plenty to investigate.

It’s a deceptively hard question to answer. “In order to find early fire, we have to work really, really hard,” says Michael Chazan, director of The Archaeology Centre at the University of Toronto. Evidence of fire is ephemeral: Its traces, in the form of ashes or baked soils, are usually eroded away by wind or water. Even when signs of potential burning are present, it can be surprisingly hard to understand their exact origin. Researchers recently determined that the “burned” darkened wood and reddened sediments found at a site in northern Germany, now a coal mine called Schöningen, were really colored by water exposure and soil decomposition, not ancient flames. Even if evidence for flames is more certain, it can be tricky to tell if the fire was the result of a natural blaze or a human-made spark, or if people harvested it from a nearby wildfire for their own use. Even harder to decipher is whether people were using those fires “regularly,” and whether that means every week, year, or decade. More.

Hmmm. If people were even harvesting fire from a nearby wildfire, they must have been aware of a use for it. Discovering how to produce fire? Well, let’s remember the legend of Prometheus, who was sent to hell by the ancient Greek gods for retiring to humanity the secret of fire. After which, humanity’s relationship with the gods was more equal. Or so the story runs.

See also: The search for our earliest ancestors: signals in the noise

2 Replies to “When humans first used fire remains controversial

  1. 1
    kmidpuddle says:

    Even if they find the remains of a fire that were clearly made by man, accurately aging it can be difficult. carbon 14 dating is only good to about 40,000 years ago. There may be other associated radio-isotopes within the ash that can be used for aging but that is beyond my knowledge.

  2. 2
    polistra says:

    Seems more likely to me that cooking started with fermentation. A pile of damp grain can easily get hot enough to spontaneously combust, and even if it just smolders, you’ve got cooked food.

    No need to wait for lightning to ignite a tree and then somehow bring the burning tree into the cave. With fermentation the heat is ALREADY IN THE FOOD, and it can be replicated and maintained. Toss a piece of meat on top of the hot grain pile, and the fat forms frybread.

    Barbecue, burgers and beer. Everything that makes us human.

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