Prehistoric humans may have learned to harness the power of fire around 350,000 years ago in the ancient Levant, according to a newly published study by Israeli researchers.
An examination of flints from the Tabun Cave, a rich site located 24 kilometers (15 miles) south of Haifa with evidence of half a million years of human habitation, helped pinpoint the date that humans mastered the use of fire, the research claims.
The study, headed by University of Haifa archaeologist Ron Shimelmitz and published in this month’s Journal of Human Evolution, was based on the premise that “fire became a regular, even permanent part of their adaptations once hominins had solved the technical challenge of kindling and maintaining it,” and that such a development would be evident in the archaeological record.
Examination of the strata in the Haifa-area cave found that before roughly 350,000 years ago, few of the stones showed signs of exposure to intense heat. After that point, an increasing number show signs of red or black coloration, cracking, and small round depressions typical of exposure to fire.
The finds are consistent with data from other nearby sites, suggesting that humans around the eastern Mediterranean learned to control fire at about the same time, Shimelmitz told Science magazine.
Earlier this year, a team led by Weizmann Institute professor Ruth Shahack-Gross discovered in the Qesem Cave, near Rosh Ha’ayin in central Israel, 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.” The study dated the finds from Qesem to roughly 300,000 years ago.
“The exact time frame in which fire became a regular part of human behavior is thus central to our reconstruction of several key features of evolutionary history,” the Shimelmitz paper said, “including changes in anatomy, the dispersal of hominins into temperate regions, as well as the intensified social interactions within base camps.”
The evidence from Tabun and other nearby sites provides “a density of coverage in time and space that is currently unavailable elsewhere,” Shimelmitz and his colleagues wrote.
The marked increase in heat-altered flints “not only signal the point in time where the use of fire became habitual, but also indicate that humans had mastered the art of kindling fire,” they wrote.