Did Fire-making Ability Enable Human Ancestors to Leave Africa?

Human fire.jpg

Illustration by Roy Andersen/NGS

The ability to make fire was likely a key factor in the migration of prehistoric hominids from Africa into Eurasia, a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute of Archaeology reported today.

Excavations at the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov archaeological site in Israel showed that the occupants of the site — identified as being part of the Acheulian culture that arose in Africa about 1.6 million years ago — had mastered fire-making ability as long as 790,000 years ago.

The revelation pushed back previously accepted dates for man’s fire-making ability by a half-million years.

The Gesher Benot Ya’aqov site is located along the Dead Sea rift in the Hula Valley of northern Israel.

Detailed investigation of burned flint at designated areas in all eight levels of civilization found at the site shows that “concentrations of burned flint items were found in distinct areas, interpreted as representing the remnants of ancient hearths,” said Nira Alperson-Afil, a member of the Institute of Archaeology team led by Naama Goren-Inbar.

“This tells us,” she said, “that once acquired, this fire-making ability was carried on over a period of many generations.” The findings are reported in an article published in the most recent edition of Quaternary Science Reviews.

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Excavations at the Gesher Benot Ya’qov site courtesy Professor Naama Goren-Inbar

Alperson-Afil said that other studies which have reported on the use of fire verified only the presence of burned archaeological materials, but were unable to delve further into the question of whether humans were fire-makers from the very early stages of fire-use.

“The new data from Gesher Benot Ya’akov is exceptional as it preserved evidence for fire-use throughout a very long occupational sequence. This continual, habitual, use of fire suggests that these early humans were not compelled to collect that fire from natural conflagrations. Rather, they were able to make fire at will,” Alperson-Afil said.

The manipulation of fire by early man was clearly a turning point for man’s ancestors, the researcher explained. “Once domesticated, fire enabled protection from predators and provided warmth and light as well as enabling the exploitation of a new range of foods.”

“The powerful tool of fire-making provided ancient humans with confidence, enabling them to leave their early circumscribed surroundings and eventually populate new, unfamiliar environments, Alperson-Afil said.

More from National Geographic News:

Phallic Figurines Found in Israel Stone Age Burials

Ancient Fig Find May Push Back Birth of Agriculture

Massive Genetic Study Supports “Out of Africa” Theory

Humans Migrated Out of Africa, Then Some Went Back, Study Says

Climate Change May Have Helped Humans Out of Africa, Study Says


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