Earliest Human Use of Fire: One Million Years Ago

An international team led by the University of Toronto and Hebrew University has identified the earliest known evidence of the use of fire by human ancestors. Microscopic traces of wood ash, alongside animal bones and stone tools, were found in a layer dated to one million years ago at the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa.

The analysis pushes the timing for the human use of fire back by 300,000 years, suggesting that human ancestors as early as Homo erectus may have begun using fire as part of their way of life…

This research was published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. From the paper’s abstract:

Here we show that micromorphological and Fourier transform infrared microspectroscopy (mFTIR) analyses of intact sediments at the site of Wonderwerk Cave, Northern Cape province, South Africa, provide unambiguous evidence—in the form of burned bone and ashed plant remains—that burning took place in the cave during the early Acheulean occupation, approximately 1.0 Ma. To the best of our knowledge, this is the earliest secure evidence for burning in an archaeological context.

From this Boston Globe article, a note on the surprising finding:

The BU team wasn’t looking for evidence of fire. The discovery was so unexpected that Francesco Berna, a research assistant professor who led the work, found himself trying to poke holes in his provocative observation. But he ruled out that the fires could have been caused by the spontaneous combustion of bat droppings, or that the signal he was seeing was due to the age of the burned bones, by comparing them with 8-million-year-old bones.

Sounds like history books need to be rewritten…