Middle Paleolithic hominins such as Neanderthals not only controlled fire, but also mastered the ability to generate it, according to new research led by University of Connecticut scientists.
“Fire was presumed to be the domain of Homo sapiens but now we know that other ancient humans like Neanderthals could create it. So perhaps we are not so special after all,” said Dr. Daniel Adler, a researcher in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Connecticut.
Dr. Adler and his colleagues from Armenia, the U.S., the U.K., and Spain, looked at sediment samples from Lusakert Cave in the Armenian Highlands to determine the abundance of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are released when organic material is burned.
One type of PAH called light PAHs, disperse widely and are indicative of wildfires while others, called heavy PAHs, disperse narrowly and remain much closer to the source of fire.
“Looking at the markers for fires that are locally made, we start to see other human activity correlating with more evidence of locally-made fire,” said lead author Alex Brittingham, a doctoral student at the University of Connecticut.
Evidence of increased human occupation at the Lusakert Cave site, such as concentrations of animal bones from meals and evidence of tool making, correlated with increased fire frequency and the increased frequency of heavy PAHs.
The team also needed to rule out the possibility that unsettled weather, which gives rise to lightning, had ignited the fires.
To do so, the scientists analyzed hydrogen and carbon isotope composition of the waxy cuticles of ancient plant tissues preserved in sediments. The distribution of these leaf waxes indicate what kind of climate the plants grew in.
“We could not find any evidence of a link between overall paleoclimatic conditions and the geochemical record of fire,” said Dr. Michael Hren, also from the University of Connecticut.
“In order to routinely access naturally caused fires, there would need to have been conditions that would produce lighting strikes at a relative frequency that could have ignited wildfires.”
By pairing the climate data with the evidence found in the archaeological record, the researchers then determined the cave’s inhabitants were not living in drier, wildfire-prone conditions while they were utilizing fires within the cave.
“In fact, there were fewer wildfires for these ancient humans to harvest at the time when fire frequency and heavy PAH frequency was high in the cave,” Brittingham said.
“It seems they were able to control fire outside of the natural availability of wildfires.”
The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Alex Brittingham et al. 2019. Geochemical Evidence for the Control of Fire by Middle Palaeolithic Hominins. Scientific Reports 9, article number: 15368; doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-51433-0
Source link: https://www.sci.news/archaeology/neanderthals-start-fire-07742.html