Inside the Pit of the World's Oldest Barbecue

Burnt bones at Qesem Cave in central Israel offer evidence that ancient man roasted meat for food.

Researchers from Tel Aviv University and the Weizmann Institute of Science have found the remains of what is likely to be the first campfire in the world to be used on a regular, ongoing basis.

The remnants of the bonfire, dating back 300,000 years, were found in the Qesem Cave, which was inhabited by prehistoric man, near Rosh Ha’ayin in the center of Israel. The size and location of the bonfire, as well as the findings around it, show that it is probably the world’s oldest man-made, permanent campfire (i.e., one used repeatedly over time). Moreover, the burnt bones found there are evidence that ancient man roasted meat there.

“They roasted meat on a regular basis and ate pretty well,” says archaeologist Dr. Ran Barkai of TAU.

Scientists agree that ancient man discovered the wonders of fire more than a million years ago. But there is debate as to when man mastered the use of fire on a controlled, daily basis. At other sites in the world, remnants have been found of sporadic and temporary fires dating back 400,000 years. Evidence of permanent campfires dating back 200,000 years had also been found, but that discovered in Qesem Cave predates them, offering evidence of the regular use of fire 100,000 years earlier.

“No authentic campfire of this age, or one as well-preserved as this one, has been found anywhere else,” says Barkai. “This is the first time it’s really been possible to see such a campfire, to understand its dimensions and its contents. Up to now, researchers detected the burnt smells or other signs, but now we have [evidence of] such a fire itself.”

The findings were recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Qesem Cave was discovered by chance in 2000 during road construction. Its once-hidden treasures have since attracted many researchers of prehistory. Indeed, the cave, apparently used as a dwelling by a group of hunter-gatherers, had been sealed off and hidden from the naked eye for hundreds of thousands of years.

“It was like a time capsule,” says Barkai, adding that the inhabitants of Qesem belonged to a transitional human civilization, unique to the Middle East: Biologically and culturally, this was not modern man, homo sapiens, but neither was it the most ancient hominid, homo erectus.

“At present it’s clear that there is something else here, but we can’t say exactly what. This clearly was a stage featuring many technological innovations: new stone tools, blade production, mining and quarrying of rock, division of space inside the cave,” Barkai notes.

In and around the cave 10 sites were found where fire was used, but only one was of significant size, with a layer of wood ash over a meter deep. This material was examined by Dr. Ruth Shahack-Gross of the Weizmann Institute, who inserted a coagulant that hardened the ash into solid blocks; they were then cut into thin slices in the lab so the components could be examined and classified. The results indicated that this material had undergone chemical changes caused by very high temperatures over an extended period of time.

Among the findings at the site were burnt animal bones, indicating that meat was roasted there for human consumption. Indeed, Barkai claims this may be the oldest evidence ever found of meat being roasted by prehistoric man. The animals roasted there, according to the remains discovered, included fallow deer, horses, cattle, a few pigs, a turtle and some sort of fowl.

Around the site of the fire were also the remains of many flint tools, including different types of knives used for cutting meat, as well as evidence that animal hides had been treated there. (Fire was need to melt the fat in the skin.)

Relics found in another spot suggest the presence in antiquity of a workshop for stone-cutting.

Barkai: “It takes a little imagination, but you can see how the campfire is the hub of activity, where the meat is eaten while other activities are going on around it. The bonfire enables us to try to reconstruct how the cave was organized.”

Lee Haywood
Qesem Cave expedition, Tel-Aviv University
Ran Barkay