Fire Tamed 350,000 Years Ago on Mount Carmel, Archaeologists Say

Fire was used a million years ago, evidence shows, but burnt stones in Tabun Cave indicate that control had been achieved.

Ron Shimelmitz

A turning point in human history has been found in a cave in northern Israel, archaeologists claim: evidence that 350,000 years ago, prehistoric men tamed fire, and began to use it on a routine basis.

There are earlier indications associating prehistoric man with fire, including findings of ash with bones and stone tools dating back a million years, in the South African cave Wonderwerk. Similar findings in Israel itself dating back 800,000 years were found at Gesher Benot Yaakov.

The archaeological team analyzing findings going back half a million years at Tabun Cave, 25 kilometers south of Haifa, postulate that what they found is the first clear evidence that the men in question – whoever they were – achieved control over fire.

If indeed men at Tabun did achieve control over fire, it would have changed their lives and possibly human evolution, explains archaeologist Ron Shimelmitz of Haifa University, lead author of the study, "‘Fire at will’: The emergence of habitual fire use 350,000 years ago" – a new analysis of material found in previous excavations by multiple institutions.

Who exactly was willing this fire remains a mystery. Archaeologists have found teeth and a skull fragment at sites dated to the same timeframe in Israel, Qesem Cave and Zutyeh in the Galilee, but not enough to ascertain what species of man lived in these caves and in Tabun. "They weren't Homo erectus, or Homo sapiens or Neanderthals," Shimelmitz told Haaretz. Hopefully, as the analysis of the Tabun finds continues, more evidence can be found to identify the fire-makers.

Meanwhile, there is debate about interpreting the Tabun discoveries. Prof. Michael Chazan of the University of Toronto, an expert on prehistoric fire use now gearing up to do further excavation at Wonderwerk Cave, feels the findings at Tabun are stunning and the research is "really great," but he for one isn't convinced that man had achieved the ability to create fire yet, rather "collected" it from nature. The Tabun team isn't claiming that man clearly knew how to light fire yet either, but finds it unlikely that lightning struck and caused bushfires every other day.

Unique record of half a million years

Tabun Cave is a rare gem in the annals of archaeology, having been inhabited for half a million years, resulting in about 100 layers of sediment going down 25 meters.

In analyzing the findings, Shimelmitz and the team concentrated on burnt flints, as opposed to other objects, because stone is durable: "burnt flints are not expected to suffer from the same degree of post-depositional alteration and destruction as are hearth features, heated sediments, charcoal and ash or even burnt bones," they write in their paper.

In levels older than 350,000 years (the first eight meters), there is no evidence of routine fire use. From that time, the evidence is there, explains Shimelmitz, who studied the findings of past excavations at Tabun with Avraham Ronen and Mina Weinstein-Evron, also of Haifa University, and Steven Kuhn, Arthur Jelinek, and Amy Clark of the University of Arizona..

"After the first eight meters we start to see a jump in the frequency of burned objects, and it doesn't disappear," Shimelmitz explains. "After man discovered how to control fire, one would expect him to continue using it as an integral part of life, like we do – if we want fire, we light one."

In other words, if man could use fire, he would have: so the absence of evidence of routine use in the bottom-most eight meters of the cave (comprising almost 20 layers, each representing multiple occupations) can indicate that he did not yet have control over it, says Shimelmitz. The evidence that he habitually used fire from that point indicates that he had gained control.

Once a man had developed the ability to light fire, the knowledge would have likely spread onwards and outwards. Not evenly, and very slowly.

One point that sticks in Prof. Chazan's craw is that no evidence of such spread at the time has been found, he claims. "If you're creating fire at will, I would expect that in that time period, we would find fire rather evenly on all archaeological sites," he explains. A late Paleolithic site in Holon (excavated in the 1960s by the late Tamar Noy), from about 200,000 to 250,000 years old, had industry similar to Tabun but no evidence of fire use, Chazan says, adding that absence of evidence isn't proof.

Shimelmitz agrees that habitual fire use can't be represented by just one site – but says that sites contemporary with Tabun do have such evidence; and adds that the Holon site isn't in a different cultural complex from the one in which habitual fire emerged.

Given that proving man could light fire is going to be all but impossible, as the means to make fire are perishable, the evidence will have to be circumstantial anyway. Shimelmitz and his team believe their circumstantial evidence is very strong.

A turning point in evolution

Whenever fire was tamed, it would have had a major impact on our behavior and sociality. You don't need to be an evolutionary scientist to grasp how fire would have changed our lives, Shimelmitz says: If an ancient man came across a fire, he would happily exploit it to warm up, maybe cook a meal. But once he had actually gained control over the technology, he would surely begin using it routinely, for light, warmth and cookery. (Former studies in fact show that even primates show a preference for cooked food over raw.)

In other words, findings sporadic evidence of probable fire use in South Africa, China and Gesher Benot Yaakov is well and good – but the findings in Tabun are the first to show consistent use of fire, indicating that the "people" there had achieved control and started to use it on a regular basis, he explains.

Chazan remains unconvinced. Man could still have been collecting it from nature, meaning from wildfires caused by lightning strikes, he argues.

The main point on which both he and Shimelmitz agree: about 400,000 years ago, something starts to shift in the use of fire. And they both agree that the jury's still out.

Did Homo Erectus have fire?

There is a hypothesis by Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham based on biology, not archaeological evidence, that Homo erectus had mastered fire almost two million years ago. His reasoning is that Homo erectus had a larger brain, smaller teeth and a shorter intestinal tract than his predecessors, indicating that his body had evolved to eat cooked food, which requires less jaw power and digestive ability to exploit, compared with raw food.

While it is an interesting theory, there is no evidence of habitual fire use from that time, Shimelmitz points out: the evidence found at Tabun is the first of its nature.

How do the Tabun findings from 350,000 years ago differ from the Wonderwerk findings of a million years ago? At Wonderwerk, the finds were of microscopic traces of ash, as well as burned animal bones and burned stone tools, evidence that fire had been used – but no "clear signal" of how intense the use of fire had been, Chazan explains.

"My gut sense is that it is what we're seeing at Wonderwerk is in fact the very early stage of the use of fire. There is no evidence that people were creating fire. We don't yet see clear fireplaces like those of later time periods such as Kebara Cave [which is very near Tabun] with its beautiful fireplace almost a meter and a half wide," Chazan says.

To be clear, we will probably never find very early evidence of fire creation. "The technology that you would use to light fire is all perishable," says Chazan. "We're not going to find a firestick hundreds of thousands of years old."

Banging flints together achieves nothing. Making fire requires creating a spark by rubbing something in a groove or rotating a stick rapidly – essentially, drilling.

The thing is, Chazan postulates – we haven't found evidence of such behavior 350,000 years ago, and the sudden presence of fire doesn't necessarily mean the Tabunites were making fire, he says. "My argument – indirect, I admit – is that if people were using fire to survive, I would expect they were highly skilled either at making grooves in objects or drilling. That would be something they did all the time to survive. But we find no traces of these technologies until much later in time," Chazan sums up.

Shimelmitz agrees – but for him the clincher is that before the Tabun layer from around 350,000 years, there is no evidence of habitual fire use. After it, there is.