Earliest evidence of fire use
“The ability to control fire was a crucial turning point in human evolution, but the question when hominins first developed this ability still remains.” But, in a paper in the prestigious journal, Nature, scientists from South Africa, Israel, Germany and America have published the earliest secure archaeological evidence of burning, at approximately 1.0 million years ago. Through micromorphological and Fourier transform infrared microspectroscopy (mFTIR) analyses of intact archaeological deposits at Wonderwerk Cave in the Northern Cape, they have provided evidence of burned bone and ashed plant remains from an early Acheulean occupation of the cave.
The evidence of fire is 30 m from the entrance of the cave, too deep for a stray veld fire to have spread (the analyses show there was no spontaneous burning of guano either). Moreover, the evidence of repeated fires, one on top of the other, suggests that our early ancestors were regularly visiting the cave and using fire in the cave. Wonderwerk Cave is still a popular place for visitors (see McGregor Museum website for details and facilities http://www.museumsnc.co.za/aboutus/depts/archaeology/wonderwerk.html), but fires are no longer permitted in the cave.
The likely ancestor who first enjoyed the Wonderwerk facilities is Homo erectus. Homo erectus would have made the Acheulian stone handaxes found at the site, and importantly, practised the controlled use of fire at the site. The fire temperatures suggested by the mFTIR analyses are consistent with fires of grass and leaves. Prof Marion Bamford from the Bernard Price Institute at Wits has been able to identify fragments of both sedge and grass, which have remained preserved for 1.0 million years!
Fire has many uses such as providing light and warmth, protection against predators, and of course, for cooking. Richard Wrangham, author of “Catching fire: How cooking made us human”, writes that once we started cooking, our food was more easily and quickly digested. Furthermore, we no longer needed such big guts for digestion – compare our digestive system to that of a python which takes up to six days to digest a meal – and because cooking is essentially a form of pre-digestion, the energy saved by not having to digest enormous amounts of raw foods could be channelled into brain food. Thus it is no coincidence that humans, the only species on earth that cooks, are the most cognitively complex and intelligent species around. And now, the earliest evidence of this intelligent behaviour has been found locally, at Wonderwerk Cave.
The evidence of the controlled use of fire at Wonderwerk Cave adds to the impressive list of archaeological ‘firsts in the world’ from sites in South Africa, such as Blombos (earliest paint palette), Pinnacle Point (earliest use of pyrotechnology) and Sibudu Cave (earliest evidence of bedding).