New research shows that Neanderthals were able to start fires using stone tools. The findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports, present the first artefactual evidence for systematic fire production by our extinct close relatives.
Ample evidence from the Middle Paleolithic, which spans 300,000 to 50,000 years ago, has shown that Neanderthals regularly used fire. However, it was unclear whether they collected natural fire, or produced it themselves.
The familiar fire-starting method of producing a shower of sparks over tinder by striking steel against flint first originated in the Iron Age. Prior to this, ample evidence suggests humans used an iron-containing mineral called pyrite to strike flint. Indeed, flint tools that had most likely been used for this purpose have been found at numerous Homo sapiens archaeological sites throughout Eurasia.
However, no dedicated fire-making tools had ever been found at Neanderthal sites. Any flint tools that had been discovered appear to have been used for other things, such as animal butchering.
Nevertheless, there were hints that Neanderthals had an interest in fire making. For example, there is evidence that late Neanderthals collected manganese dioxide (MnO2), a mineral that when crushed to a powder can lower the combustion temperature of woody tinder, making it easier to light.
In the new study, archaeologist Andrew Sorensen at Leiden University in the Netherlands and his colleagues re-examined some flint tools that had been found at multiple Neanderthal sites across France. Using a technique called microwear analysis, they identified macroscopic and microscopic striations that suggest the flint tools had been repeatedly struck with a hard mineral.
The researchers then conducted an experiment to see if they could produce similar markings on replica flint tools by using them in a number of different tasks, including fire-making via striking with pyrite fragments. They found that not only was it possible to produce sparks by striking the replica flint with pyrite, but the markings produced by this process were the closest match to the markings found on the Neanderthal flint tools.
Taken together, these findings represent strong evidence that Neanderthals systematically used tools to make fire. This in turn has interesting implications for the understanding of Neanderthal cognition.
Fiona McMillan a science communicator with a background in in physics, biophysics, and structural biology. She was awarded runner up for the 2016 Bragg UNSW Press Prize for Science Writing.
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