Early humans in Europe: Evidence reveals fire control 250,000 years ago, redefining human development timeline

Researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland have made a significant discovery regarding the early use of fire by humans in Europe. According to a paper published in Scientific Reports, the scientists present evidence suggesting that our European ancestors were utilizing fire for various purposes, such as cooking, heating, and defense, as early as 250,000 years ago. This finding challenges previous beliefs that humans began managing fire in Europe around 200,000 years ago.

The research team, led by Dr. Clayton Magill, an Assistant Professor at Heriot-Watt specializing in geochemistry, employed forensic chemical methods to identify partially burnt molecules. They detected evidence of fire at Valdocarros II, an archaeological site located near Madrid, Spain. The remains of burnt materials exhibited an organized pattern, indicating that humans were intentionally creating and controlling the fires. The spatial arrangement of the fire residues suggests that they were surrounding specific areas, such as homes, sleeping quarters, living rooms, kitchens, or animal enclosures.

This discovery sheds new light on the early use of fire by early humans in Europe and expands our understanding of their technological and societal advancements.

The charred remnants analyzed by the researchers also reveal that our early human ancestors carefully selected specific types of firewood based on their burning properties, such as generating heat and producing minimal smoke.

Dr. Magill expressed his enthusiasm for the findings, describing them as “very exciting” and filling a gap in our knowledge of human-controlled fire and human development. He emphasized the significance of fire in defining our species, citing its role in cooking food, facilitating protection, fostering communication, and strengthening familial connections. The conclusive evidence now establishes that humans in Europe were initiating and extinguishing fires approximately 50,000 years earlier than previously believed.

Dr. Magill further highlighted the superiority of chemical analysis as a reliable method for confirming the presence of fire compared to studying archaeological hearths, which can be subject to erosion or damage during extraction due to weather conditions. Moving forward, the research team plans to examine stone tools discovered near the fire hearths to determine if they were utilized in specific ways in relation to fire control, such as cutting meat or processing plants.

The Heriot-Watt team was granted access to regulated and rare samples from the Valdocarros II site by archaeologists Susana Rubio‑Jara and Joaquín Panera, and the collection of samples with meticulous attention to cleanliness and detail was facilitated by former Heriot-Watt Ph.D. student Lavinia M. Stancampiano. Additional researchers involved in the project include David Uribelarrea del Val and Alfredo Pérez González from Complutense University of Madrid.

While the earliest unambiguous evidence of human-controlled fire globally dates back to approximately 1.5 million years ago in East Africa and around 790,000 years ago in Israel, previous evidence has linked countries such as Hungary, France, and Germany to fire usage in Europe.

Source: Heriot-Watt University

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