archeology: earliest evidence of fire use found

Israeli researchers have discovered what could be the oldest-known remnants from fires made by humans, suggesting mankind controlled fire nearly 790,000 years ago. In a study published in the April 30 Science, Naama Goren-Inbar of Hebrew University and colleagues report analyzing burned seeds, wood, and flint found at Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, an archeological site in Israel. The distribution and clustering of the burned small flint fragments hints that the fires occurred in specific spots, which may have been hearths. The researchers believe the fires were set intentionally because most of the flint andwood at the site is unburned, suggesting that wildfires were not the cause. Although it’s unclear exactly what species of human set the fires, whether Homo erectus, Homo ergaster or archaic Homo sapiens, the evidence at the site suggests the fire users hunted and processed meat, gathered plant foods, quarried rock, and made stone tools. As the authors write, in what could be construed as an understatement, “The domestication of fire . . . surely led to dramatic changes in behavior connected with diet, defense, and social interaction.”

This news brief appeared in the Discoveries column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 5/04/2004.
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