Fire and Early Homo Sapiens Innovations

Session Date: 
Oct 24, 2020

Fire, more than any other technology, separates human from non-human primate behavior. Fire was used expediently by pre-Homo sapiens hominins more than a million years ago. Rare, ephemeral traces of early fire use have been recovered from archaeological sites in Africa, Israel and Europe. Perhaps the ability to cook food occasionally, thereby extracting nutrients easily, played some role in hominin evolution, allowing the development of smaller teeth and gut, and larger, more nutrient-costly brains. This suggestion is controversial because an increased meat diet could have the same effect, but there is less controversy about the control that Homo sapiens wielded over fire. Archaeological evidence for fire use increased dramatically from about 300,000 years ago, close to the origin of our species, and at the dawn of the Middle Stone Age in Africa. Thick stacks of ash, suggesting repeated fire use, and therefore probably the ability to produce fire at will, have been found in some Middle Stone Age sites like Border Cave in South Africa. In this presentation, the newly published data from Border Cave will be described. Ash was deliberately used as an under-blanket for Border Cave grass bedding at 227,000 years ago. Ash deters crawling parasites as well as providing a clean, insulating surface. Furthermore, people here were collecting rhizomes and bringing them back to the cave to cook and share. We therefore see that they practiced delayed gratification and had social mores that involved sharing. Once people learned to control and reproduce fire instead of using it only from natural sources, its usefulness broadened. In addition to using fire for light, warmth, cooking, social comfort, and protection from predators, people began to use pyrotechnology to create a variety of useful products. Sophisticated fire technology was known to Homo sapiens; this included creating medicinal smoke, heat treating rocks to improve their knapping quality, and the use of low temperature heat to dehydrate adhesives for hafting tools and weapons.

File 2020_10_24_12_Wadley.mp4525.04 MB