Charred. Ancient fire has left holes in this burned grass seed from Israel.

The First Fire

If you want to ignite a debate among archaeologists, just ask a simple question: When did humans first control fire? Now an Israeli team has dampened that debate by reporting the firmest, and oldest, evidence yet. The findings push back the age of fire to 790,000 years ago--more than three times earlier than the previously accepted date--and could help explain how early humans were able to colonize Europe.

The new evidence, reported in the 30 April issue of Science, comes from Gesher Benot Ya'aqov (GBY) in northern Israel. A seven-member team, led by archaeologist Naama Goren-Inbar of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, conducted a painstaking analysis of the site. GBY is located on the shore of an ancient lake, and the organic remains were waterlogged, helping to preserve them nearly intact. The team's archaeobotanists sifted through 23,454 seeds and fragments of fruit and 50,582 pieces of wood looking for burned specimens. Meanwhile, the archaeologists examined large numbers of flint artifacts. The fact that less than 2% of the flint and wood fragments were burned rules out such possibilities as lightning-sparked wildfires, the team argues. Moreover, the burned flint was found in discrete clusters, which the team interpreted as evidence of hearths in specific locations.

"I think they have made by far the best case yet for humanly controlled fire before 250,000 years ago," says Richard Klein of Stanford University in California. Paola Villa of the University of Colorado, Boulder, agrees: The paper "provides very strong evidence of the use of fire by early humans," she says. Others caution that the possibility of natural fires can never be entirely excluded at such an ancient site.If the claim is substantiated, it may help explain how early humans were able to push into the chillier climate of Europe after 800,000 years ago. GBY sits in the middle of the so-called Levantine corridor, “at the crossroads out of Africa," says Clive Gamble of the University of Southampton, U.K. Thus it may be no coincidence that the earliest substantiated early human sites in Europe also begin to appear right around 800,000 years ago. Says Villa: "The colonization of Europe, where temperatures probably dropped below the freezing point at times, is generally tied to the use of fire."

Related sites
The Science paper
More about Gesher Benot Ya'aqov

Posted in Archaeology