Israeli study finds early humans knew to situate hearth in cave’s optimal spot

Tel Aviv University researchers find that as far back as 150,000 years ago, cave-dwelling humans could pick best spot for a fire for minimum smoke and maximum benefits

Reconstruction of meat roasting on campfire at the Lazaret Cave, France. (Photo Credit: De Lumley, M. A.  néandertalisation (pp. 664-p) CNRS éditions)
Reconstruction of meat roasting on campfire at the Lazaret Cave, France. (Photo Credit: De Lumley, M. A. néandertalisation (pp. 664-p) CNRS éditions)

A new study by Tel Aviv University has found that early cave-dwelling humans were able to place the hearth in the optimal location to allow inhabitants to make the most of the warmth while exposing them to minimal smoke.

The research, published this week in the journal Scientific Reports is part of an attempt by scientists to understand at what point in their evolution did early humans learn how to control fire and use it on a daily basis.

The researchers from TAU’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures used advanced technology to study the Lazaret Cave in southeast France, where early humans lives 170-150 thousand years ago in a bid to understand did they use the inner space of the cave efficiently in relation to the fire?

Using thousands of sensors and computer simulation models, the researchers looked at various potential places for the fireplace in the cave. Previous studies had indicated that the back of the cave would be the best place to locate the fire, letting the smoke rise to the ceiling and circulate out. But the scientists were surprised to discover that through several archaeological layers, the hearth was actually placed in another area of the space.

“We tried to understand why the occupants had chosen this spot, and whether smoke dispersal had been a significant consideration in the cave’s spatial division into activity areas,” said PhD student Yafit Kedat, who co-authored the study.

“We found that the average smoke density, based on measuring the number of
particles per spatial unit, is in fact minimal when the hearth is located at the back of the cave – just as our model had predicted. But we also discovered that in this situation, the area with low smoke density, most suitable for prolonged activity, is relatively distant from the hearth itself.”

Excavations at the Lazaret Cave, France (Photo Credit: De Lumley, M. A. néandertalisation (pp. 664-p) CNRS éditions.

In fact, the hearth was found to be located in a 25-square-meter area that struck the optimal balance between allowing the most use of the fire for warmth, cooking and social activities while limiting smoke exposure to a minimum.

“Our study shows that early humans were able, with no sensors or
simulators, to choose the perfect location for their hearth and manage the cave’s space as early as 170,000 years ago – long before the advent of modern humans in Europe,” said co-author Prof. Ran Barkai.

The findings reflect “ingenuity, experience, and planned action, as well as awareness of the health damage caused by smoke exposure,”  he said, adding that “the simulation model we developed can assist archaeologists excavating new sites, enabling them to look for hearths and activity areas at their optimal

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