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Published By

Dr. Dick van der Wateren


Archaeology, Human evolution, Fire

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Earliest evidence for use of fire by humans in Europe

29.03.2011, Age: 3864 days

Early Europeans may have suffered cold winters for nearly half a million years before they invented fire, around 400,000 years ago, new archaeological evidence suggests. This contradicts the widely accepted notion that the colonisation of Europe out of Africa required fire.

In an open-access paper in the journal PNAS Wil Roebroeks (University of Leiden, Netherlands) and Paola Villa (University of Colorado Museum, USA) challenge the paradigm that European winters were too cold for early humans to survive. Their conclusions also conflict with ideas about human evolution stating that the larger modern brains resulted from consumption of cooked food.

The controversy is far from being resolved. Evolutionary biologists argue that humans may have used fire even 1.9 million years ago. When humans started to cook their food, they say, this set off a chain of evolutionary changes including development of smaller gut and teeth and larger brains. Wthout the use of fire these anatomical changes would not have happened. Roebroeks and Villa, however, maintain that there is no evidence for the use of fire in Europe before 400,000 years ago. Yet, no evidence only means that this date is the minimum age of fire use in Europe. Until new evidence of cooking fires older than 400,000 years turns up, the controversy will remain.

Abstract of Roebroeks & Villa article:

The timing of the human control of fire is a hotly debated issue, with claims for regular fire use by early hominins in Africa at ∼1.6 million y ago. These claims are not uncontested, but most archae- ologists would agree that the colonization of areas outside Africa, especially of regions such as Europe where temperatures at time dropped below freezing, was indeed tied to the use of fire. Our review of the European evidence suggests that early hominins moved into northern latitudes without the habitual use of fire. It was only much later, from ∼300,000 to 400,000 y ago onward, that fire became a significant part of the hominin technological reper- toire. It is also from the second half of the Middle Pleistocene onward that we can observe spectacular cases of Neandertal pyro- technological knowledge in the production of hafting materials. The increase in the number of sites with good evidence of fire throughout the Late Pleistocene shows that European Neandertals had fire management not unlike that documented for Upper Paleolithic groups.

Wil Roebroeks and Paola Villa: On the earliest evidence for habitual use of fire in Europe. Published online before print March 14, 2011, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1018116108 PNAS March 29, 2011 vol. 108 no. 13, 5209-5214.

See also: Scientist Smackdown: When Did Europeans First Harness Fire? Discover

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