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Humans First Built Fire 350000 Years Ago

Dec 15, 2014 11:53 AM EST

New evidence from an Israeli cave indicates that humans first built fires around 350,000 years ago, according to a new study.

An international team led by Ron Shimelmitz from the University of Haifa examined flint debris and tools discovered in the Tabun Cave in northern Israel. While the study finds archaeological evidence of fire dating back to a million years ago, researchers focus on humans' habitual use of fire.

Based on past studies, the Tabun Cave is believed to have been inhabited on and off through the Lower and Middle Paleolithic ages between 500,000 and 40,000 years ago. As time went on, the cave filled up with 82 feet of sand, silt and clay, allowing Shimelmitz and his colleagues to date human habitation from each layer.

Flints older than 350,000 years showed no signs of being burned, however after that flints from different layers showed various degrees of fire exposure, along with thousands of fragments that had supposedly broken off as tools were shaped.

With this increase in the frequency of burnt flints, researchers concluded that regular fire use developed between 350,000 and 320,000 years ago in the eastern Mediterranean - 50,000 years earlier than previously thought.

"While hominins may have used fire occasionally, perhaps opportunistically, for some million years, we argue here that it only became a consistent element in behavioral adaptations during the second part of the Middle Pleistocene," the researchers wrote in the Journal of Human Evolution.

"The benefits of fire for processing food, altering raw materials or enhancing social interactions would be fully realized only when use of fire shifted from opportunistic and occasional to habitual and regular," they added.

Mastering the art of making fire helped lead to the development of complex human culture, as well as played a key role in the sophistication of social behavior.

Some researchers also suggest that controlling fire led early humans to spread into colder climates, but this expansion had already begun by 350,000 years ago.

"Understanding the time frame of this 'technological mutation' will help explain aspects of our anatomical evolution and encephalization over the last million years," the research team said.

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