Neanderthals could control fire | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 05, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, April 05, 2011

They Weren't Dummies

Neanderthals could control fire

A new study involving the University fo Colorado Boulder indicates Neanderthals had achieved continuous control of fire

It is believed that the Neanderthals, our ancient of ancestors, were somewhat brainless dummies and in accordance with that notion, this extinct member of Homo-genus have been portrayed as brutes. But a new research has shown that our ancient human ancestors were able to control fire even on continuous basis which many experts believe as one of the most important milestones on the path ofcivilization some 400,000 years ago. This new research by the University of Colorado (UoC) and Leiden University, Netherlands (LUN), the details of which have been published in the March 14 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded this finding after inspecting 141 ancient Neanderthal excavation sites (dating from 1.2 million years to 35,000 years B.C) in Europe. Neanderthals, stockier than contemporary humans who still carry a small amount of Neanderthal DNA, once roamed Europe and Central Asia. And also thought to have evolved in Europe around 400,000 to 500,000 years ago and became extinct about 30,000 years ago. It is considered in the archeological community that the emergence of stone tool manufacturing and the control of fire are the two key hallmark events in the technological evolution of the early man. However, even though it is agreed that the origins of stone tools date back to some 2.5 million years ago the emergence of habitual fire control remains a highly debatable issue. But Paolo Villa, curator at the UoC's Museum of Natural History and Prof. Wil Roebroeks of LUN, both authors of the paper were on a mission to shed some light on the issue.
As part of the study, the researchers, with extensive efforts, created a database of 141 potential fireplace sites in Europe, the timeline of which ranges from 1.2 million years to 35,000 years ago. And regarding the evidence for the controlled use of fire, the presence of charcoal, heated stone artifacts, burned bones, heated sediments, hearths and rough dates obtained from heated stone artifacts were prioritized as evidence. And when sites with two or more of these particular characteristics were found, it was considered as solid evidence of the controlled state of fire. According to Paolo Villa, while the oldest traces of human presence in Europe goes back to more than 1 million years ago, the earliest evidence of habitual Neanderthal fire use comes from the Beeches Pit site in England dating to roughly 400,000 years ago. The site concerned here, contained scattered pieces of heated flint, evidence of burned bones at high temperatures, and individual pockets of previously heated sediments. With the aid of electron spin resonance, paleomagnetism, thermoluminescence as well as microscopic studies of sediment at sites to confirm the presence of ashes, the researchers encountered some of the best evidence for controlled use of fire by the Neanderthals in Europe. One of the most spectacular uses of fire by Neanderthals, that the study team discovered was in the production of a sticky liquid called pitch from the bark of birch trees that was used by Neanderthals to haft, or fit wooden shafts on, stone tools.

The contributor is a freelance Science writer.

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