The Telegraph
Tuesday , April 3 , 2012
Since 1st March, 1999
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Fire use evidence a million years old
- Scientists discover proof of flame control in south africa cave

New Delhi, April 2: Scientists exploring a cave in South Africa have found what they believe to be the earliest evidence for the control and use of fire by the ancestors of humans about a million years ago.

The discovery of plant ash and burnt wood and bones in Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa’s Northern Cape Province appears to push back the history of the control of fire by about 600,000 years, the researchers said.

The evidence points to the repeated use of fire deep inside the cave, an international team of researchers said in a paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The evidence is about 30 metres inside the cave, it is fairly extensive, and it recurs, indicating repeated fires inside this cave,” said Francesco Berna, an Italian-American archaeologist at Boston University, and the first author of the paper.

“These features make it very unlikely that what we’ve observed is the action of natural fires,” Berna told The Telegraph.

Scientists have long presumed that an ancestral species of humans called Homo erectus, which reigned from about 1.8 million years ago to 200,000 years ago, was the first to use fire.

An archaeological site called Koobi Fora in northern Kenya also has evidence of burning and the use of fire about 1.5 million years ago. But Koobi Fora is an open-air site which could represent the use of natural fires, said Marion Bamford, a paleobotanist at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, who studied the plant ash remains from the Wonderwerk cave.

“Here, we know for sure that humans were involved in the fires,” she said.

Until now, the earliest confirmed habitual use of fire was from Qesem Cave in Israel, dated to about 400,000 years ago, Berna said.

The Wonderwerk cave has been extensively studied since the 1970s. The new findings follow nearly eight years of excavation and research by a team of scientists from Canada, Germany, Israel, South Africa, and the US.

The scientists say their work uses a new technique to study ancient fires. “It allows us to examine microscopic signatures of fire in ash and burnt stone,” said Michael Chazan, an archaeologist at the University of Toronto.

The evidence of fire from Wonderwerk challenges recent suggestions by some researchers that while the Homo erectus may have used natural fires more than a million years ago, it was only the ancestors of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals who habitually used fires for cooking much later, about 400,000 years ago onwards.

No fossil of early humans has been found at the Wonderwerk yet. “But the evidence of fire is associated with a date of about 1 million years, so the best candidate is Homo erectus,” Berna said.

The Wonderwerk study team said the mix of plant ash residues and bone fragments with signatures of exposure to fire at several locations at the site suggest repeated use of fire under control.

“We don’t know yet whether the inhabitants actually made the fires or brought them from elsewhere — perhaps from a natural fire triggered elsewhere outside the cave,” Chazan told The Telegraph.

How the residents controlled fire, he said, is a topic of current research.