Stone Age Combustion: Fire Use Proposed at Ancient Israeli Site

Article excerpt

Our prehistoric ancestors may have been a fiery bunch. By about 750,000 years ago, the inhabitants of a lakeshore in what is now northern Israel had learned to build fires in hearths, a research team contends.

For the next 100,000 years, Stone Age folk who frequented the Middle Eastern site used hearths for what must have been a variety of purposes, including staying warm, fending off predators, and cooking meat, according to archaeologist Naama Goren-Inbar of Hebrew University in Jerusalem and her colleagues.

They describe their findings in the April 30 Science.

"This is the oldest evidence for the controlled use of fire in Asia and Europe," Goren-Inbar says.

Goren-Inbar's team unearthed more than a dozen clusters of scorched flint artifacts at Gesher Benot Ya'aqov. They mark where hearths were located, she proposes. Investigators also found burned seeds and bits of charred wood near the flint remains.

These finds lay just above a layer of rock that contains evidence of a reversal of Earth's magnetic field that happened 790,000 years ago. Animal bones in the artifact-bearing soil also informed Goren-Inbar's age estimate.

The Israeli researcher doubts that wildfires burned the Gesher Benot Ya'aqov material. Such conflagrations cover large areas, but only 2 percent of excavated flint and wood fragments show signs of fire. Underground wildfires, such as burning roots, don't get hot enough to scorch buried flint, she adds.

Fire making probably started more than 1 million years ago among groups of Homo erectus in Africa and possibly Asia, she says. …