In the stereotypical view of prehistory, fire is important. We imagine caveman and cavewoman gathering around a cavefire to heat their cavehouse. In our minds eye fire was a key component of prehistoric life and this image is surprisingly close to the truth.
Fire was indeed an important part of our cultural evolution. It allowed us to extend daylight hours artificially and efficiently process a wider range of foods, amongst other things. It would have undoubtedly had a large impact on both our biology and our behaviour.
Some people do overplay the importance of fire, suggesting it allowed us to efficiently process food which in turn prompted a decrease in gut size that freed up energy so our brains could grow. This is a variant of the expensive tissue hypothesis, an idea with little evidentiary support.
Nonetheless, fire was an important technological achievement. The question thus becomes, when did man become lord of the flame?
Answering this question is easy in one respect but awfully difficult in another.
On the one hand fire leaves behind ash which, provided it isn’t scattered, will typically form a very distinct band in the stratigraphy of a site and can be easily spotted. Thus finding when and where fire happened isn’t that hard.
However, understanding the “why” of fire is a lot more difficult. Was the ash produced by natural means or by people? Were the people able to start the fire or did they just steal a burning bush from a wildfire and simply cultivate it? These questions are a lot harder to answer.
One good measure of whether a fire was man-made or simply a natural occurrence (which could’ve been harnessed by people) is the frequency of fires at particular site. If they are common then its a good indication they aren’t simply exploiting infrequent bushfires.
Such rigorous evidence of fire use can be found at the Roc de Marsal cave shelter.... This neanderthal site contains multiple hearths, dating to between 71 and 91 thousand years ago. It would seem hominins could control fire by at least this date.
Less secure (but still relatively reliable) evidence can push this date back to ~300,000 years ago when hominins started using fire to alter their tools. Possible hearths have also been recovered from this date.
There is circumstantial evidence suggesting fire was used as early as 800,000 years ago, although this could easily be explained as (at best) the simple exploitation of natural fires.
However, a new South African site purports to overturn all of this; claiming evidence for controlled use of fire can be found as early as 1 million years ago!
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