Neanderthals knew fire control 400,000 years ago: Study

"Until now, many scientists have thought Neanderthals had some fires but did not have continuous use of fire," study author Paola Villa, of the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, said in a paper published in the journal The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"We were not expecting to find a record of so many Neanderthal sites exhibiting such good evidence of the sustained use of fire over time," Villa said. Neanderthals are thought to have evolved in Europe roughly 400,000 to 500,000 years ago and went extinct about 30,000 years ago.

The pre-historic humans, who ranged over much of Europe and stretched to Central Asia, were stockier than the modern humans and even shared the same terrain for a time. Modern humans are believed to have began migrating out of Africa to Europe some 40,000 years ago.

According to archaeologists, the emergence of stone tool manufacturing and the control of fire are the two hallmark events in the technological evolution of early humans. While experts agree the origins of stone tools date back at least 2.5 million years in Africa, the origin of fire control has been a prolonged and heated debate.

For their research, Villa along with co-author Prof Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University in the Netherlands visited dozens of the Neanderthal excavation sites in Europe, combed libraries throughout Europe and the US, spoke to experts who were involved in excavations.

Then they created a database of 141 potential fireplace sites in Europe dating from 1.2 million years ago to 35,000 years ago, assigning an index of confidence to each site.

While the oldest traces of human presence in Europe date to more than one million years ago, the earliest evidence of habitual Neanderthal fire use comes from the Beeches Pit site in England dating to roughly 400,000 years ago, said Villa.

The site contained scattered pieces of heated flint, evidence of burned bones at high temperatures, and individual pockets of previously heated sediments. Like other early humans, the Neanderthals created and used a unique potpourri of stone tools, the researchers said, adding that one of the most spectacular uses of fire by the early humans was the production of a sticky liquid used to fit wooden shafts on stone tools.

Villa said: "This means Neanderthals were not only able to use naturally occurring adhesives as part of their daily lives, they were actually able to manufacture their own. "For those who say Neanderthals didn't have elevated mental capacities, I think this is good evidence to the contrary."

The second major finding of the study was that the predecessors of the Neanderthals pushed into Europe's colder northern latitudes more than 800,000 years ago without the habitual control of fire, said Roebroecks.

Archaeologists have long believed the control of fire was necessary for migrating early humans as a way to reduce their energy loss during winters when temperatures plunged below freezing and resources became more scarce.

"This confirms a suspicion we had that went against the opinions of most scientists, who believed it was impossible for humans to penetrate into cold, temperate regions without fire," Villa added.

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