New findings at the Wonderwerk Cave, in South Africa, suggest that early humans started using fire 1 million years ago, approximately 300,000 years earlier than previously thought. The study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, renews the debate on whether fire (and cooking) may have been a major milestone in human evolution.
There is enough evidence to show that the fire was made by humans, based on the place where the researchers found its traces. ‘It’s 30 metres inside the cave, there weren’t any trees growing there, so it was unlikely there was any vegetation of wood or wood-like material that would have been there to burn on the spot’, says Professor Paul Goldberg, an archaeologist at Boston University and co-author of the study . ‘You can exclude local burning of material by natural causes.’
There are earlier traces of fires, but it remains unknown whether these fires were controlled or spontaneous. This discovery, however, will help further research on the role of fire in early hominids.
‘The control of fire would have been a major turning point in human evolution,’ says Professor Michael Chazan, co-author of the study and researcher at the Department of Anthropology of the University of Toronto. ‘The impact of cooking food is well documented, but the impact of control over fire would have touched all elements of human society. Socialising around a camp fire might actually be an essential aspect of what makes us human.’
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Berna, F., Goldberg, P., Horwitz, L., Brink, J., Holt, S., Bamford, M., & Chazan, M. (2012). PNAS Plus: Microstratigraphic evidence of in situ fire in the Acheulean strata of Wonderwerk Cave, Northern Cape province, South Africa Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1117620109