Humanity mastered fire very early on, but when exactly?

Fire changed the lives of our hominid ancestors when it was domesticated. This did not happen overnight, but it seems possible to date the period when the fire began to be brought under control. New technologies are helping archaeologists to clarify this dating.

There are discoveries that change the face of the world. The domestication of fire is reputed to have changed the course of history for humanity: it has made it possible to improve survival, but also the cooking of food or even to be able to light up at night. Whole sections of the lives of our ancestors have gradually evolved thanks to this. But from what moment, exactly, did this determining domestication take place?

To find the answer, archaeologists must study the sites where there are traces of controlled fires in prehistoric camps. This requires studying the remains of consumed objects, the color of floors and stones, the shape of materials over time. It is a visual and chemical study. However, the technologies mobilized by archeology have evolved: in many new work published in June 2022the authors used a form of artificial intelligence as a thermometer.

The tool is quite surprising: thanks to spectroscopy and a deep learning algorithm, the thermometer can detect the tiniest chemical changes in stones and fossils, making it possible to determine what kind of heat objects have been exposed.

Was fire brought under control 1 million years ago?

Using this AI on flint tools dated to 0.8 to 1 million years ago at a site in Israel, archaeologists discovered some very interesting heat signatures: they were heated to very varied temperatures and sometimes reaching up to 400 degrees Celsius. This figure means that these flints (and pieces of defense) were voluntarily put in contact with a fire.

Knowing how to make a campfire has not always been obvious. // Source: Pexels

The possibility of a forest fire exists to explain these temperatures, except that all the tools studied were gathered in one and the same place, which makes it possible to suppose very strongly a situation under control by the hominids of the time and this site. The potential of a controlled campfire is significant, because previously it was believed that the use of fire by the very first hominids was ” opportunistic and risky.

It was then thought that the domestication of fire strictly speaking (knowing how to mobilize it to cook food, make a campfire, heat a tool, etc.) only dates back half a million years, the traces of ‘common usage only becoming meaningful there is 400,000 years. But the new discovery of a controlled fire in a million-year-old encampment changes the timeline. This find is, moreover, consistent with other archaeological observations in situ – as shown a 2012 study based on old techniques.

This study reveals the presence of fire at a Lower Paleolithic site devoid of visible signs of pyrotechnics, and adds a new Lower Paleolithic site to a handful of archaeological sites with evidence linking both fire and artifacts produced by early hominids “, write the authors. The use of this new technology has the potential, according to them, to extract ‘hidden’ information about pyrotechnology-related activities from other sites “.

This means that we could not only better date the domestication of fire, but also better understand how it gradually changed the way our ancestors lived.

For further

Cueva de Ardales // Source: Ramos-Muñoz et al., CC-BY 4.0

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