Think Israel’s traditional Independence Day barbecue cook-fest is a recent phenomenon? Think again: Humans in Israel have been controlling fire since at least 300,000 years ago, according to newly published archaeological findings from Qesem Cave, a paleolithic site near Rosh Ha’ayin in central Israel.

The finds represent the earliest confirmed use of controlled fire for cooking and eating, the archaeologists say.

A team led by Weizmann Institute professor Ruth Shahack-Gross discovered, in the center of the cave, a large deposit of wood ash mixed with bits of bone and soil that had been repeatedly heated to a high temperature, “conclusive proof that the area had been the site of a large hearth,” according to a Weizmann Institute press release.

Detailed testing revealed that the hearth was “used repeatedly over time,” beginning about 300,000 years ago, and the discovery of various kinds of flint tools in the cave points to a “kind of social order typical of modern humans,” the release noted.

Scan of a sediment “slice” from the hearth area of the cave showing burnt bone and rock fragments within the gray ash residue (Courtesy: Weizmann Institute)

Scan of a sediment “slice” from the hearth area of the cave showing burnt bone and rock fragments within the gray ash residue (Courtesy: Weizmann Institute)

“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,” Shahack-Gross said. “They also tell us something about the impressive levels of social and cognitive development of humans living some 300,000 years ago.”

Early humans are believed to have made use of fire from a much earlier date, but the Qesem Cave finding is the earliest confirmed use of controlled fire for cooking and heating. Modern homo sapiens are believed to have evolved in Africa around 200,000 years ago, so the Qesem Cave inhabitants likely belonged to an earlier human species.

The site has been the subject of research into its Stone Age occupants since 2000. A full report on the recent findings was published in the January 2014 edition of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Upper left: Infrared spectrum of the grey sediments, right, showing that the dominant material is calcite, the mineral of which the wood ash is composed. Lower left: Photograph of the cave during excavation; arrow pointing to the hearth. Upper right: micro-morphological image of the grey sediment showing dark grey particles and patches corresponding to the remains of wood ash. Lower right: Scan of a micro-morphological, thin section showing the layered burnt bones (yellow, brown and black fragments), intermixed with grey sediments. (Courtesy: Weizmann Institute)

Upper left: Infrared spectrum of the grey sediments, right, showing that the dominant material is calcite, the mineral of which the wood ash is composed. Lower left: Photograph of the cave during excavation; arrow pointing to the hearth. Upper right: micro-morphological image of the grey sediment showing dark grey particles and patches corresponding to the remains of wood ash. Lower right: Scan of a micro-morphological, thin section showing the layered burnt bones (yellow, brown and black fragments), intermixed with grey sediments. (Courtesy: Weizmann Institute)