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Home » New study confirms Neanderthals were capable of making and using fire

New study confirms Neanderthals were capable of making and using fire

Neanderthals' ability to harness and utilize fire for various purposes, including cooking, serves as a testament to their intelligence. This reinforces our previous theories and observations, as explained by Diego Angelucci, an archaeologist from the University of Trento and co-author of the study.

These ancient hominins displayed skills such as symbolic thought, artistic expression, personal ornamentation, and a diverse diet. Moreover, our research has confirmed that Neanderthals routinely cooked their food, establishing their proficiency on par with the Homo sapiens who inhabited the Earth millennia later.

The question of how we know Neanderthals used fire is a topic of general agreement among archaeologists. While it's acknowledged that they had access to naturally occurring fires, such as those ignited by lightning, the study reveals their ability to create and control fire, using it for cooking, warmth, and defense. Fire was undeniably a central element in Neanderthals' daily lives.

This information comes from the article “Formation processes, fire use, and patterns of human occupation across the Middle Paleolithic of Gruta da Oliveira,” published on October 11 in PLOS ONE.

Excavation in the Gruta de Oliveira. Credit: João Zilhão

Twenty years of excavations

The article meticulously examines and contrasts the remnants of controlled fires discovered within a remarkable location: Gruta de Oliveira, situated in central Portugal. This cave is among the most significant European archaeological sites pertaining to the Middle Paleolithic period. What sets it apart is the methodical and precise excavations conducted over an extensive 20-year span, spanning from 1989 to 2012.

The international team of archaeologists, under the guidance of João Zilhão (University of Lisbon), spearheaded the efforts, and the study was authored by João Zilhão along with Diego Angelucci (UniTrento) and Mariana Nabais (IPHES, Catalan Institute for Human Paleoecology and Social , Tarragona).

Gruta de Oliveira. Credit: João Zilhão

Gruta de Oliveira is an integral component of the Almonda karst system, an extensive network of caves situated at various elevations near a substantial spring. These caves have witnessed human habitation during distinct epochs in prehistory. The cave's oldest layers, incorporating numerous passageways, date back approximately 120,000 years, with the most recent ones reaching about 40,000 years. It is believed that Neanderthals inhabited this site between 100,000 and 70,000 years ago.

In Angelucci's words, “For us, Almonda is a treasure trove that continues to yield a wealth of artifacts and remains accumulated over the years. From ancient relics harking back to the Lower Paleolithic to the chipped stones indicative of the Mousterian culture, this site truly encompasses a wide spectrum of archaeological finds.”

Hearths and food remains

In this particular case, what piqued the interest of archaeologists were the deliberate traces of hearths constructed and used within the cave. Within an excavation area spanning about 30 square meters and reaching a depth of six meters, these unmistakable, basin-like circular structures were discovered, brimming with remnants.

The discoveries made both within and in close proximity to these hearths provided clear evidence that the cave's inhabitants engaged in food preparation. “We uncovered charred bones, burnt wood, and ash residues,” as described by Angelucci. Additionally, the rock beneath these hearths had been transformed to a reddish hue due to the intense heat, a critical detail indicating their primary and enduring presence. Fire, in this context, was indeed an integral element in the daily lives of these ancient occupants. It not only provided comfort but also fostered social interaction, imparting a sense of ‘home' that may have held significance for them.

Excavation in the Gruta de Oliveira. Credit: João Zilhão

A varied diet

The dietary habits of Neanderthals offer intriguing insights. “We've unveiled their culinary preferences and even glimpsed into their cooking techniques,” notes the researcher. Within the excavations, a treasure trove of evidence emerged, showcasing the remnants and charred bones of various cooked creatures, including goats, deer, horses, aurochs (extinct bulls), rhinos, and turtles, the latter seemingly stewed on hot stones while positioned on their carapace.

This inland cave predominantly featured meat on the menu. Yet, in other cave excavations overlooking the western Mediterranean Sea near Cartagena, Spain, a different culinary story unfolded. Here, remnants of fish, mussels, mollusks, and even roasted pine nuts were discovered. A 2020 study had already illustrated the diversity in Neanderthal diets, but these Portuguese excavations further solidify their mastery of cooking with fire.

Curiously, the means by which Neanderthals ignited their fires remains a mystery. “Perhaps, similar to techniques used in the Neolithic era, they struck flint rocks against other rocks to create sparks on tinder, such as a dry nest,” speculates the researcher. This technique, found by studying Ötzi, the Ice Man, lacks direct evidence in these excavations.

By delving through a series of sedimentary layers spanning 30,000 years, archaeologists had the opportunity to compare this data with other sites in the region dating back to the Upper Paleolithic period, involving more recent eras with the presence of Homo sapiens. Strikingly, no significant differences were observed. The ways in which they inhabited these caves remained strikingly similar, underscoring their shared skills and, notably, their commonalities as distinct human forms rather than disparate species.

The study

This article marks the culmination of an extensive 30-year data analysis endeavor. Led by João Zilhão, the Portuguese team examined stone tools, while Mariana Nabais scrutinized bone remnants, employing spatial analyses to decipher the positioning of discoveries within the cave and the locations of the hearths.

The research conducted by the University of Trento's group, situated within the Department of Humanities, concentrated on stratigraphy and microscopic investigations. “Our approach is deeply rooted in interdisciplinary archaeology,” they emphasize. It encompasses preliminary on-site investigations, precise excavation techniques, meticulous cataloging of all findings, methodical sieving, and the exact collection of field data. Furthermore, this approach involves gathering samples for subsequent microscopic or laboratory analyses, employing the most advanced methodologies available. Undoubtedly, these methods demand both time and resources, which are essential aspects imparted to our students in their archaeological education.

Source: University of Trento


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