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Weizmann Institute Scientists Uncover Traces of Fire Dating Back At Least 800,000 Years


Using advanced AI techniques, researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel discovered one of the earliest pieces of evidence for the use of fire, dating back 800,000 years.

Ever wonder how long ago exactly people first began to use fire and how exactly they discovered it? It’s like they teach you in School: The wheel was invented, but fire was discovered.

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OK, so fire is something that exists and people did not need to invent it. But when and how exactly did early humans master the use of fire for the first time.

In an article published in PNAS, the Weizmann Institute of Science scientists revealed an advanced, innovative method that they have developed and used to detect nonvisual traces of fire dating back at least 800,000 years – one of the earliest known pieces of evidence for the use of fire. The newly developed technique may provide a push toward a more scientific, data-driven type of archaeology, but – perhaps more importantly – it could help us better understand the origins of the human story, our most basic traditions and our experimental and innovative nature.

The controlled use of fire by ancient hominins – a group that includes humans and some of our extinct family members – is hypothesized to date back at least a million years, to around the time that archaeologists believe Homo habilis began its transition to Homo erectus. That is no coincidence, as the working theory, called the “cooking hypothesis,” is that the use of fire was instrumental in our evolution, not only for allowing hominins to stay warm, craft advanced tools and ward off predators but also for acquiring the ability to cook.

Cooking meat not only eliminates pathogens but increases efficient protein digestion and nutritional value, paving the way for the growth of the brain. The only problem with this hypothesis is a lack of data: since finding archaeological evidence of pyrotechnology primarily relies on visual identification of modifications resulting from the combustion of objects (mainly, a color change), traditional methods have managed to find widespread evidence of fire use no older than 200,000 years. While there is some evidence of fire dating back to 500,000 years ago, it remains sparse, with only five archaeological sites around the world providing reliable evidence of ancient fire.

“We may have just found the sixth site,” says Dr. Filipe Natalio of Weizmann’s Plant and Environmental Sciences Department. “When we started this project the archaeologists who’ve been analyzing the findings from Evron Quarry told us we wouldn’t find anything. We should have made a bet.”

Evron Quarry, located in the Western Galilee, is an open-air archaeological site that was first discovered in the mid-1970s. During a series of excavations that took place at that time and were led by Prof. Avraham Ronen, archaeologists dug down 14 meters and uncovered a large array of animal fossils and Paleolithic tools dating back to between 800,000 and 1 million years ago, making it one of the oldest sites in Israel. None of the finds from the site or the soil in which they were found had any visual evidence of heat: ash and charcoal degrade over time, eliminating the chances of finding visual evidence of burning. Thus, if the Weizmann scientists wanted to find evidence of fire, they had to search farther afield.

According to the research team, by looking at the archaeology from a different perspective, using new tools, we may find much more than we initially thought. The methods they’ve developed could be applied, for example, at other Lower Paleolithic sites to identify nonvisual evidence of fire use. Furthermore, this method could perhaps offer a renewed spatiotemporal perspective on the origins and controlled use of fire, helping us to better understand how hominin’s pyrotechnology-related behaviors evolved and drove other behaviors.



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