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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Using fire a million years ago

The ability to not only take advantage of fire but to produce and control it may be the most important technological advance of all time. Yet there’s no consensus on how long ago our ancestors acquired this skill. As early as 1.9 million years ago (Mya), Homo erectus showed signs of relying on a diet of cooked food, as indicated by molar size and body mass. However, physical evidence of fire from that time period is scanty.

Now, Francesco Berna from Boston University and an international group of colleagues have found actual burned food remains dating from 1 Mya in Wonderwerk Cave, Northern Cape Province, South Africa. I’d be quite pleased if this location turned out to be the birthplace of cooking. Wonderwerk Cave does sound like a place where things are magically delicious.

In any case, the anthropologists found evidence of burned plants and bone at the site.  Unlike other examples of early fire, the location of the samples within the cave precludes the possibility that they were the result of wild fires. The positioning of the scraps was also incompatible with being swept into the cave by wind or water.  In other words, the items were deliberately burned right there.

Many of the 1 Mya fragments collected were microscopic. Needless to say, it can be challenging to gather evidence that you can’t see. Random sweeps through other promising sites could set the date of earliest fire usage even further back.