|A study co-authored by a Wits scientist suggests that human ancestors first used fire 300 000 years earlier than the one million year previous estimate.||
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Professor Marion Bamford (BSc 1983, BSc Hons 1984, MSc 1986, PhD 1990) in the Wits Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research was part of the team that discovered plant ashes and bits of burned bone in the Wonderwerk Cave near Kuruman, Northern Cape.
“A member of the Homo genus, perhaps Homo erectus, made a fire that produced those remains,” wrote lead authors and sediment analysts, Francesco Berna (Boston University) and Paul Goldberg (Hebrew University) in the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on 2 April 2012.
“The ability to control fire was a crucial turning point in human evolution, but the question when hominins first developed this ability still remains,” write the authors in the abstract to the study. The findings “provide unambiguous evidence - in the form of burned bone and ashed plant remains - that burning took place in the cave during the early Acheulean occupation”. These provide “the earliest secure evidence for burning in an archaeological context”.
Bamford said that whilst excavations for archaeological artefacts and bone in the Wonderwerk cave had been underway for the past 40 years, newer research methods had unearthed new evidence. Extensive evidence of surface discoloration - typical of burning - indicated earlier use of fire as well as from geochemical analysis of the stones and bones. “There was no evidence of charcoal, i.e., wood, to make the fire, but there were fragments of burned grasses, sedges and leaves,” Bamford explained. “Such fuel makes for a somewhat cooler fire - around 500°C - and the FTIR [Fourier Transform Infra Red; determines the temperature at which the bone was burned] analyses support this.”
Previous evidence hints at fire-making activity in Africa, Asia and Europe although scorched pot pieces found in Israel, estimated at 700,000-800,000 years ago, were previously believed to be the earliest signs of fire.
University of Toronto anthropologist, Michael Chazan, the co-director of the project said, “The analysis pushes the timing for the human use of fire back by 300 000 years, suggesting that human ancestors as early as Homo erectus may have begun using fire as part of their way of life.” He added that the controlled use of fire would have been “a major turning point in human evolution.”
“The impact of cooking food is well documented, but the impact of control over fire would have touched all elements of human society,” said Chazan. “Socialising around a camp fire might actually be an essential aspect of what makes us human.”
Other members of the team include James Brink and Sharon Holt of the National Museum, Bloemfontein, and Ari Matmon and Hagai Ron of Hebrew University.