Evidence for the repeated use of a central hearth at Middle Pleistocene (300 ky ago) Qesem Cave, Israel
A major debate in prehistory revolves around the time and place of the earliest habitual use of fire and the hominin species responsible for it. Here we present a newly discovered hearth at Qesem Cave (Israel) that was repeatedly used and was the focus of hearth-centered human activities, as early as three-hundred-thousand years ago. The hearth, identified based on mineralogical and microscopic criteria, contains two superimposed use cycles, each composed of shorter episodes – possibly the earliest superimposed hearth securely identified to date. The hearth covers ca. 4 m2 in area making it a uniquely large hearth in comparison to any contemporaneous hearth identified thus far, possibly indicating it has been used by a relatively large group of people. In addition, the hearth is located in the center of the cave and is associated with butchered animal remains and a dense flint assemblage. The flint assemblage indicates spatially differentiated meat cutting and hide working activity areas. The central location of the hearth within the cave and the activities associated with it may reflect an embedded perception of space organization of the Qesem Cave inhabitants. Since fire was habitually used throughout the 420–200 ky sequence of Qesem Cave, where preservation conditions are alike throughout, we suggest that this unique hearth may reflect a development in nature and most probably in the intensity of fire use in Qesem Cave, from ca. 300 ka ago onwards.