New research published in the journal Scientific Reports provides clear evidence that Neanderthals made fire by striking a piece of pyrite, the yellow mineral sometimes known as fool’s gold, against flint tools called bifaces.
Fire use appears to have been relatively common among Neanderthals in the Paleolithic period.
However, the means by which our evolutionary cousins procured their fire — either through the collection of natural fire, or by producing it themselves using tools — is still a matter of debate.
“The general idea was that Neanderthals did not make their own fire, but were dependent on natural fires caused by lightning strikes,” said lead author Andrew Sorensen, an archaeologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
“They would have collected flaming sticks to light their own fires, which they kept burning at all times and were even able to take with them as they moved around.”
“This idea now appears to be incorrect, at least among some younger Neanderthal groups,” he added.
Sorensen and colleagues found macroscopic and microscopic mineral use traces on 50,000-year-old bifaces from Neanderthal sites in France.
“I recognized this type of wear from my earlier experimental work. These are the traces you get if you try to generate sparks by striking a piece of flint against a piece of pyrite,” Sorensen said.
With a combination of microscopic research and experiments, the researchers confirmed that the traces of wear were specific to fire making.
“You see percussion marks in the shape of a letter C. You also see parallel scratches, or striations, along the length of the biface and mineral polish on the surface,” Sorensen said.
“We carried out various experiments to eliminate other causes of this distinctive wear. We used bifaces to grind pigments, sharpen other tools, and for other pounding and rubbing activities using various types of stone.”
“Being able to make their own fire gives the Neanderthals much more flexibility in their lives,” he said.
“It’s a skill we suspected, but didn’t know for sure they possessed. That they figured out bashing two rocks together could produce a brand new substance (fire) completely unlike the parent materials gives us new insight into the cognitive skills of Neanderthals.”
“It shows Neanderthals possessed similar technological capabilities to modern humans, even though they sometimes behaved differently.”
A.C. Sorensen et al. 2018. Neandertal fire-making technology inferred from microwear analysis. Scientific Reports 8, article number: 10065; doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-28342-9
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