The discovery of such ancient remains is very special. It means that people who lived on our continent knew how to make fire at least 50,000 years earlier than previously thought.
Making and using fire has long been seen as one of the most important innovations in human evolution. For example, fire provides cozy warmth, protects against predatory animals and expanded the human diet: it turned raw, inedible food into a cooked meal. We now know that hominins started fires in East Africa about 1.5 million years ago. 790,000-year-old traces have also been found in Israel. And now it appears that Europeans already knew what to do with fire some 250,000 years ago.
The researchers base their findings on finds at an archaeological site near the Spanish capital Madrid. Here, the team studied the chemical composition of the earth, rocks and minerals. And that has led to the discovery of certain molecules that indicate incomplete combustion. “We found conclusive evidence that something burned,” said lead study lead Clayton Magill. “The remains appear to be organized in a pattern. This suggests that people started the fire.”
Cook or defend
Magill suspects our ancestors used fire to cook or defend themselves. “It also seems that the fire surrounded something,” he continues. “Think of a house or sleeping area, a living room or kitchen, or maybe an animal enclosure.”
After studying the chemical composition, the researchers concluded that the arsonists knew what they were doing. The charred remains suggest that our ancestors very consciously chose certain types of firewood because of its properties. For example, the selected wood became very hot, but did not produce large plumes of smoke.
50,000 years earlier
What also makes the discovery so interesting is that the remains found are at least 250,000 years old. And that while before this study it was still thought that Europeans only made fire for the first time about 200,000 years ago. For example, traces of this have been found in Hungary, France and Germany, among others. However, the new research group now pushes the first use of fire in Europe further back in time: apparently, inhabitants of our continent started fires at least 50,000 years earlier than previously thought.
…the Neanderthals also knew how to use fire? A few years ago, scientists found a very specific, microscopic wear on flint hand axes from the Middle Paleolithic; the era of the Neanderthals. These are traces that are created when you try to strike sparks with a piece of pyrite against a flint. And that indicates that Neanderthals – at least a number of ‘younger’ groups – were probably able to start their own fires.
According to Magill, this is a very interesting new insight. “Fire has been very important to our species,” he says. “It enabled our ancestors to prepare food, which then made us evolutionarily successful.”
But not only that. From then on, people could gather around the fire to keep warm. And that has probably contributed to the social character of man. “Fire provides protection, promotes good conversation, and strengthens family bonds,” Magill sums up. “And now we have definitive, irrefutable evidence that humans already knew how to make fire about 50,000 years earlier than expected.”
In the next phase of the project, the research team plans to study stone tools found nearby. The hope is that this will give them a better idea of what exactly these tools were used for – and whether this can be related to the remains of the fire that were found. For example, were they used to cut meat or to pulverize plants? “We want to understand whether the use of certain tools goes hand in hand with the ability to make fire,” said Magill.
Thanks to the study, published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, the researchers have expanded our knowledge about our own ancestors a little further. “The findings are very exciting,” says Magill. “It gives us more insight into human development.”