Humans’ first use of fire may not be so long ago

March 16, 2011 - 0:0

Fire, scientists agree, helped give rise to a successful, thriving human population by providing heat for cooking and protection from the cold.

But they don’t agree exactly when humans began using fire. Some researchers argue that it occurred more than a million years ago when early humans made their way to Europe from Africa, and others say it happened much later. Now, a new study argues that humans did not master fire until about 400,000 years ago.
Two archaeologists, Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University in the Netherlands and Paola Villa of the University of Colorado Museum in Boulder, report their findings in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The pair looked at excavation reports and studies from 141 sites in Europe that were between 1.2 million and 35,000 years old. There is no clear evidence of habitual fire use until about 400,000 years ago, Dr. Villa said.
In Africa, while there are several sites where there was evidence of fire, those may have been natural fires that occurred in the African savanna.
Yet there are sites older than 400,000 years in Europe that indicate the presence of humans, with the oldest, in Spain, more than a million years old. This means that despite Europe’s extreme winter climates, early humans found a way to survive without the warmth of a fire.
The study reveals that early humans were both tenacious and resilient. “It means that the early hominids were very adaptable,” Dr. Villa said. “Try to go to England now without warm clothes.” But that, too, is a puzzling explanation, said Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist at Harvard who has conjectured that humans began using fire nearly two million years ago.
“It demands some serious thinking about how early Homo could have survived on a seasonally variable food supply despite having small teeth and small guts,” he said. “No one has solved this problem yet.”
(Source: The NYT)