Questions have long circulated over precisely when and how man wielded fire. Approximations suggest that human beings discovered the utility of fire over a million years ago; however, researchers consider the controlled use of fire by prehistoric humans to represent a significant milestone in human evolution, helping to provide warmth, protection and the ability to cook food. Recently, however, a group of Israeli scientists have discovered a 300,000-year-old hearth in the Qesem Cave, situated near Rosh Ha’ayin – a modern-day city in the Center District of Israel.
The latest study was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, entitled Middle Pleistocene Dental Remains From Qesem Cave (Israel). The researchers believe they have found the earliest evidence of repeated and deliberate construction of fires over a protracted period of time. The team’s findings suggest that prehistoric human beings demonstrated intelligence and social organization that surpasses original expectations.
The excavation work has been ongoing in Qesem Cave, ever since 2000. One of the researchers – Dr. Ruth Shahack-Gross of the Kimmel Center for Archaeological Science at the Weizmann Institute – was involved in collecting samples at the excavation site and performing subsequent laboratory analysis. Specializing in the classification of archaeological finds, Shahack-Gross stumbled across a deposit of wood ash, situated at the heart of the cave.
Shahack and colleagues employed infrared spectroscopy to establish its composition. Among the ash were fragments of bone and soil that had been subjected to extreme temperatures. In light of this, the researchers now believe they have unequivocal proof that the site represents a hearth. Shahack-Gross then scrutinized the ash in further detail.
A sample of the sediment was collected for analysis, hardened in the laboratory and then sliced into extremely thin slithers; the end result was then inspected using microscopy to explore its individual constituents. Ultimately, the researchers found many micro-strata, which supports the theory the area was used, on a persistent basis, to build fires.
Aside from the hearth itself, the archaeological team also located an array of flint tools that were designed for completing different objectives, based upon their variable shape. Some of the utensils were used for carving up meat, while a large assortment of burnt animal bones were also discovered, scattered around the region of the hearth. The authors theorize that fires were repeatedly built to cook animal meat and provide a source of heat.
Looking specifically at the layout of the tools within the cave, relative to the position of the hearth, Shahack-Gross came across – what appeared to be – a division of labor. Parts of the cave were divided into “household” activities, showing a type of social order typically witnessed in modern man, and, therefore, a hub that prehistoric humans repeatedly visited.
During a recent press release, Shahack-Gross points out that humans living 300,000 years ago had reasonably advanced social and cognitive development, before going on to describe the intriguing implications of the hearth:
“These findings help us to fix an important turning point in the development of human culture – that in which humans first began to regularly use fire both for cooking meat and as a focal point – a sort of campfire – for social gatherings.”
By James Fenner