Neanderthals were regular users of fire, but archaeologists are not sure whether these extinct hominins are capable of starting their own fires or if they receive their flames from natural sources. New geochemical evidence shows that Neanderthals actually had the cultural capacity to fire their own Paleolithic barbecues.
It pains me to admit, but if I was lost in the desert and had to light a fire without the benefit of a lighter or a match, well, it's safe to say it would be a very cold night. In fact, the ability to ignite a flame still seems magical to me – so imagine what the ability to light a fire from scratch must have meant to early humans.
At one time, our ancestors harnessed the power of the flame to keep warm, cook food, produce new materials, shoot predators and light dark caves. And of course, it provided a classic social setting, namely the campfire circle.
Archaeological evidence shows that hominins of different species used fire as early as 1
But as new evidence presented this week in Scientific Reports suggests that the Neanderthals had the ability to start their own fires. Using hydrocarbon and isotope evidence, researchers at the University of Connecticut found that some Neanderthals using fire had poor access to fires, so the only way they could acquire it was by starting it themselves.
"It is supposed that fire is the domain of Homo sapiens but we now know that other ancient people such as Neanderthals can create it," says Daniel Adler, co-author of the new study and associate professor of anthropology at The University of Connecticut, in a press release. "So maybe we're not that special after all."
We know that Neanderthals and other hominins used fire based on archaeological evidence like the remains of fire pits and charred animal bones. But there is evidence that shows that Neanderthals had the necessary materials for igniting fires, namely manganese dioxide blocks (cuts of this material can help in the production of fire since it can be ignited at lower temperatures compared to other materials). This says that competitive evidence from France links the use of Neanderthal fire to warmer periods when forests are denser than flammable material and when the chances of lightning strike are greater – important factors in determining probability of fires. This and other evidence was used to claim that the Neanderthals were not pyrotechnologically capable, as it was easy for them to catch flames from burning bushes.
For the new study, Adler and his colleagues seek to test this hypothesis, that is, to determine whether the use of fire among Neanderthals can really be related to the occurrence of natural fires.
A critical component of this study is a molecule called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs are released by burning organic materials and they can provide a fire record over geological time ranges. They also come in two varieties: light and heavy. The light species, lPAHs, can travel great distances while the heavy species, hPAHs, remain localized. For the study, researchers analyzed lPHA discovered in Lusakert Cave 1 in Armenia – a known Neanderthal cave – as evidence of fire use, and hPHA discovered outside the cave as evidence of forest fires. The scientists also looked at the isotopic data taken from the fossil plants, in particular from the wax found on the leaves, to determine the weather conditions at the time.
A total of 18 sediment layers from the Lusakert Cave 1 were analyzed, over a period of 60,000 to 40,000 years. The HHPAs in these layers, along with other archaeological data, indicate the widespread use of Neanderthal fires in this cave. During the same period, however, fires outside the cave were rare. Moreover, isotope data do not indicate anything unusual about fire-friendly environmental conditions, such as excessive dryness. This prompts the authors to "reject the hypothesis" that the use of fire among Neanderthals is "predisposed to its natural occurrence in the regional environment," according to the document. If anything, new evidence points to the "normal use" of fire by Neanderthals "during periods of low fire frequency," the study wrote.
Chemist and co-author Alex Brittingham describes it this way in a press release: "They seem to have been able to control the fire beyond the natural presence of forest fires." data and store it at the same time.
"In the archeological context, as we find in the Lusakert Cave, we are forced to answer all questions over a longer timeframe," Brittingham says in an email to Gizmodo. "So all the data we present in this post, whether it's the leaf wax climate, the PAHs fire data or the lithium human occupation data, is averaged over time. So when we compare these independent datasets, we compare them between different identified stratigraphic layers. "
Needless to say, this study presents circumstantial evidence in support of Neanderthal pyrotechnology, as opposed to direct evidence such as manganese dioxide blocks or other clues. More evidence will be needed to make a stronger case, but this last effort is a good step in that direction.
Another potential limitation of this study is the ability of sediment to move through the years or to decompose or dilute through erosion processes.
"However, given the good preservation of other hydrocarbons in place, we do not believe this is a problem," Brittingham tells Gizmodo.
That the Neanderthals had the capacity to start fires is not a great shock. These hominins demonstrated the ability to think abstractly, evident from their cave paintings . They also forge tools and make their own glue so they are quite creative and hard-working. Moreover, they were able to find existence in much of Eurasia for an impressive 360,000 years. Imagine surviving for so long without the ability to start fires, or that their disappearance is somehow related to a lack of pyrotechnic ability, seems to be the most deliberate conclusions.