Humanity's introduction to fire: 300,000-Year-Old hearth found in Israel
Evidence shows repeated use, indicating that cooking and gathering took place in one area
Next to the wheel, the discovery of fire is one of the most important discoveries made by ancient man. Before man harnessed flames, the world was plunged in darkness whenever the sun went down. All food had to be consumed raw - and many of our ancestors froze to death come the winter. Now, a team of Israeli scientists have found in the Qesem Cave, near present-day Rosh Ha'ayin, the earliest evidence of fire building over a continuous period.
Dr. Ruth Shahack-Gross and her colleagues have shown that this organization of various "household" activities into different parts of the cave points to an organization of space.
Ongoing since 2000, excavations in Qesem Cave have been conducted by Professors Avi Gopher and Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University.
Ongoing since 2000, excavations in Qesem Cave have been conducted by Professors Avi Gopher and Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University. Dr. Ruth Shahack-Gross of the Kimmel Center for Archeological Science at the Weizmann Institute has been involved in this archaeological research since excavations began, collecting samples on-site for later detailed analysis in the lab.
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Shahack-Gross identified a thick deposit of wood ash in the center of the cave. Using infrared spectroscopy, she and her colleagues discovered that mixed in with the ash were bits of bone and soil that had been heated to very high temperatures, conclusive proof that the area had been the site of a large hearth.
Shahack-Gross then tested the micro-morphology of the ash, extracting a cubic chunk of sediment from the hearth and hardened it in the lab.
Shahack-Gross sliced it into extremely thin slices to be placed under a microscope to observe the exact composition of the materials in the deposit and reveal how they were formed. She was able to distinguish a great many micro-strata in the ash - evidence for a hearth that was used repeatedly over time.
Before man harnessed flames, the world was plunged in darkness whenever the sun went down. All food had to be consumed raw - and many of our ancestors froze to death come the winter.
In and around the hearth area, the archaeologists found large numbers of flint tools that were clearly used for cutting meat. The flint tools found just a few meters away had a different shape, designed for other activities.
Large numbers of burnt animal bones were further evidence for repeated fire use for cooking meat. Shahack-Gross and her colleagues have shown that this organization of various "household" activities into different parts of the cave points to an organization of space - and a thus kind of social order - which is also typical of modern humans.
This suggests that the cave was a sort of base camp that prehistoric humans returned to again and again. "These findings help us to fix an important turning point in the development of human culture - that in which humans first began to regularly use fire both for cooking meat and as a focal point - a sort of campfire - for social gatherings," she says.
"They also tell us something about the impressive levels of social and cognitive development of humans living some 300,000 years ago."
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