Scientist Smackdown: When Did Europeans First Harness Fire?

By Patrick Morgan | March 15, 2011 5:21 pm

What happens when evolutionary biology disagrees with archeology? If you’re thinking “scientific headache,” you’re right. New research suggests that Europeans first regularly used fire no earlier than 400,000 years ago—an assertion that, if true, leaves evolutionary anthropologists in a lurch because this date isn’t linked to the substantial physiological changes we’d expect with the advent of cooked food.

The Controversy

The majority of archeologists think that early humans’ control of fire is tied to their migration out of Africa. After all, how else would the first Europeans cope with the freezing winters?

Based on archeological evidence, we know that early humans first arrived in southern Europe over a million years ago, and—based on the Happisburgh site —reached England around 800,000 years ago. So the problem with the new 400,000 year-old date is that it means that hominids suffered through hundreds of thousands of years of cold winter unaided by fire. And according to evolutionary biologists, this new date clashes with the idea that cooked food aided the evolutionary enlargement of the human brain.

The 400,000-Year-Old Evidence

The new date is based more on lack of evidence than anything else: Researchers examined excavation reports from 141 European archeological sites ranging between 1.2 million and 35,000 years old, and didn’t find any evidence of “habitual fire use” until 400,000 years ago.  They did this by only looking for evidence of controlled and habitual fire use, including charcoal clusters, sediments reddened by heat, and evidence of the flames required to make pitch. Also, they looked for places where fires couldn’t (or were less likely to) form naturally, such as inside caves: If you find burned bones inside a cave, chances are they were created by someone who was burning things.

Using this criteria, the researchers threw out 19 potential fire sites that were older than 400,000 years, concluding that two sites—one in Germany and one in England—showed the first clear signed of habitual, intentional use of fire. The Schoningen, Germany, site included heated stone, charred wood, and wooden tools; and the Beeches Pit site in England revealed ancient fireplaces—clear evidence that controlled fire had to have started by that time period.

“This confirms a suspicion we had that went against the opinions of most scientists, who believed it was impossible for humans to penetrate into cold, temperate regions without fire,” said Paola Villa, a curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. [SIFY News]

Along with her collaborator, Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University in the Netherlands, Villa also called into question the traditional evidence for prehistoric fire use, such as isolated charred bone fragments and charcoal chunks, and they caution that they’re only studying European fire use—their findings shouldn’t be applied to all hominids.

For example, in Israel’s Gesher Benot Ya’aqov site, habitual fire use is dated to 780,000 years ago, and this is based on clear evidence: The archeologists mapped the distribution of burnt and unburnt artifacts and discovered that they clustered at specific area, suggesting hearths. But Villa and Roebroeks say that there is no evidence that the Israeli hominids gave their skills to the European ones.

Not According to Biology

Based on the evolution of human physiology, Harvard evolutionary anthropologist Richard W. Wrangham, author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, says that hominids could have been using fire as early as 1.9 million years ago.

If the archaeological evidence points in the right direction, it’s unclear how modern human ancestors eked out a living during lean times and why the arrival of cooking about 400,000 years ago had, at most, trivial effects on our anatomy. “Or the biology is right, in which case we have the puzzle of why some early human occupations show no evidence for the control of fire,” he wrote. [MSNBC]

Wrangham says the advent of cooked food would have had drastic effects on human evolution, and there’s no evidence that these effects started around 400,000 years ago. Humans had already developed small teeth and small guts by that time, which may suggest that they were able to cook their food long before then: Cooked food is easier to digest, and so the advent of cooking (and therefore the harnessing of fire) in Europe should coincide with these physiological changes. Some biologists say it doesn’t make sense how early humans could have developed smaller guts before we had fire. “No one has solved this problem yet,” Wrangham told the New York Times. In his book, Wrangham also argues that human bodies would have had to expend less energy to digest cooked food, allowing our bodies to use that energy for other purposes, such as evolving larger brains—and so he also points out this 400,000-year-old date doesn’t coincide with any significant evolutionary brain expansion. In short, the biology and the archeology don’t add up.

Agree To Disagree (for Now)

For the moment at least, the archeologists and evolutionary biologists are each set in their arguments, and that’s because the new dates provide only a minimum age for European fire control: There haven’t yet been any examples of older fire use, though that doesn’t rule out that there aren’t any.

So if the new dates are correct, how could humans survive hundreds of thousands of years in the bitter cold without fire? The researchers say that early Europeans may have been highly active and ate high-protein foods like raw meat and seafood, both of which are documented. As Villa told the New York Times: “It means that the early hominids were very adaptable … Try to go to England now without warm clothes.”

Related Content:
DISCOVER: #76: Europe’s Oldest Hominid Makes Its Debut
DISCOVER: Human Origins
80beats: More Evidence That Our Cro-Magnon Ancestors Shunned Neanderthals
80beats: Homo Erectus Women Had Big-Brained Babies, New Fossil Suggests

Image: Wikimedia Commons /  MarcusObal

  • Brian Too

    The logic flaw here is obvious. Merely because the study authors did not find any evidence, does not mean that it does not exist.

    Also, it seems striking that they “…threw out 19 potential fire sites…” and categorically discounted the transmissability of the Israeli fire use much earlier. Knowledge is the lightest and most portable possession of all.

    Hey, they might be right. However it seems a logic leap too far to declare that there was no European use of fire prior to 400,000 BCE. Not based upon this study!

    It’s not good enough to say there’s no evidence. The archeological record is notoriously sparse and equivocal. To reach their conclusion, they’d have to to generate their own positive evidence that there COULD NOT BE purposeful use of fire. Show statistical analysis of bones demonstrating no consumption of cooked food (as an example; I’m not sure this is possible). Over a long period of time and over a wide geographical area. Otherwise they are just blowing academic smoke.

  • Glidingpig

    I am a firm believer that we did almost everything a lot earlier that we think. Colonized the Americas, had agriculture, native American culture(ie cities). Lack of evidence is not proof against, just a lack of support for.

    Humans have been way more smart that we have given them credit for.

  • linda george

    Maybe they spent the winters in Spain!

  • John Lerch

    I agree with LG; I have my doubts about assertions that European hominids only travelled a few dozen miles in their lives before HSapiens Modern appeared.
    And I think that BT is misreading the Discovery blogger (tho it’s the bloggers fault). I think “throw out” means they didn’t find adequate evidence that the humans had fires in their homes at the time.
    I have often wondered how people survived in caves with a fire going and no chimney. So maybe the resolution of the conundrum is that early Europeans used fire JUST NOT WHERE THE CO WOULD KILL THEM.

  • Bryan Bremner

    Great, generally when scientists start pointing to different data sets and calling each other names, a lot of pointed research is started and a lot of new things get discovered. Keep the arguments going, we will all learn from them.

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    @Brian and @John: Obviously the researchers didn’t just summarily ignore those sites because they didn’t like them—they concluded there wasn’t good enough evidence that there had been purposeful use of fire at those sites.

  • Heather Spoonheim

    I agree with John Lerch. It may be likely that the first Europeans simply didn’t light fires within their caves. One of the earliest sites, the Beeches Pit site in England, is described as revealing fireplaces. Although the fireplaces are not described and may be very simple, this does suggest some technique of fire-safety that could have only developed after an extended period of fire usage.

    As far as the conflicting biological evidence – is it possible that sun drying meat could denature the proteins equally well to cooking over fire? If game animals were abundant to the early Europeans, perhaps they dried more meat than they cooked, thus leaving less evidence of fire behind while still evolving as one might expect on a diet of cooked meat.

  • Whomever1

    “… Try to go to England now without warm clothes.” And why are you saying they didn’t have warm clothes 1,000,000 years ago?

  • NotStradamus

    Silly scientists. Everyone knows that Prometheus stole fire from Zeus to give to humanity.

  • HI55

    Smackdown…really? Is that necessary?

    Hey, kids! This is science, but it’s just like pro wrestling! Just wait ’til they start smashing things over each other’s heads, they’ll get this argument settled!
    Vote for your favorite scientist, and you might win a trip to England. For a cookout!

    Perhaps “Scientists Disagree…” would get the message across while retaining some sense of dignity for yourselves, and for us, and for science.
    I expected better.

  • bob sykes

    Who are these “humans”? From the timing, I would assume these are neanderthals. They certainly aren’t early H. sapiens. Or are we talking H. erectus? Didn’t erectus have fire 800,000 years ago or more?

    The use of “Europeans” here is misleading in the extreme. These guys are not French haute-cuisine chefs.

  • E. Manhattan

    Researchers often seem to be able to run excellent, rigorous studies – and then come to conclusions completely unsupported by their excellent, rigorous studies.

    What this study found was that there are currently no known definite, unquestionable examples of human cooking before 400,000 years ago in Europe. Some suspected examples, but no definite examples. Well done! No one can argue with it.

    Great study. Then the authors left science behind and claimed to have shown that no cooking existed in Europe before 400,000 years ago, which they “had suspected” was true before they ran their study. Well, no. They only showed that no one has yet found any unquestionable examples.

    It’d be nice if more scientists followed scientific rules of evidence, and refrained from coming to conclusions without facts to support them, wouldn’t it?

  • Brian Too

    @12. E. Manhattan,

    Thank you, you captured my objection perfectly. And then shared it perhaps more clearly than I.

    The study authors can plausibly claim there is no definitive proof of intentional fire use in Europe prior to 400,000 BCE. Subject to peer review and criticism of course. They cannot claim there is no intentional fire use prior to that date however.

    Those are 2 different claims with 2 different standards of evidence required. The first assertion merely states that fire use prior to 400,000 BCE is unknown. The second assertion states that fire was not used and controlled.

    Absence of evidence does not equal evidence of absence.

  • Aly

    Why cant it be that the “evolution” actually happened at the level of our gut bacteria? Why does it have to be “us” that got better at cooking and extracting calories from food, why could it not be the bacteria that made the leap?

    I think we need to be a little more realistic about what “we” are.

  • David

    The notion that a small gut requires cooking is simply nonsense. Have any of these brainiacs ever looked at the gut of a cat? Meat is fully edible without a complex gut, and it is known from their coprolites that Neanderthals ate almost nothing but meat.

    What cooking does is to allow the digestion of complex carbohydrates with a carnivore’s gut. It is effectively partial digestion. A raw potato is almost indigestible but a cooked one goes down fine. Cheap cat food is based on grains and other plants. Cats can eat it for the same reason – it’s been partially digested already. Whether it’s good for them is another question, of course.

    Also, the idea that living in a cold climate requires fire is simply wrong. People can spend days, even weeks, without fire in the harshest climates. What it actually requires is not fire but rather clothes and some form of shelter.


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