Neanderthals Could Make Fire, New Study Suggests

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 Opportunistic source of fire
Opportunistic source of fire Credit: \ Yaron Kaminsky
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Neanderthals could not only use fire, they could deliberately make it by striking stones together, a study published in Nature's Scientific Reports postulates. If true, it would be a paradigm-changer about the beetle-browed cousin from whom humans split off about half a million years ago.

The conclusion is based on indications that appropriate stones had been used to generate fire about 50,000 years ago in various parts of France, some ten thousand years before the earliest evidence of Homo Sapiens presence there.

Does this Neanderthal skull look very familiar? It should: You share 99% of this proto-human's genes. Credit: Anagoria, Wikimedia Commons

Fire use dates back to about 400,000 to 300,000 years, which is before either Homo sapiens or Neanderthal as we know then had quite taken shape. In fact there is even less agreement about when control over fire was achieved, either by humans or (possibly) by Neanderthals.

"Control" means that we (or Neanderthals) knew how to deliberately produce fire, rather than just make opportunistic use of brush-fires they happened upon.

Archaeologists agree that hundreds of thousands of years ago, early humans and Neanderthals could at least make opportunistic use of fire. Opportunistic means that for example, lightning would ignite a brush-fire; the hominin would gingerly ram a stick into that convenient blaze and convey the flaming stick to wood stacked in a hearth in the cave. Then they could cook a meal, warm up, frighten cave bears and so on. It is possible that opportunistic use of fire predates homo sapiens and Neanderthal both, by hundreds of thousands of years. 

The question is one of whether one could make the fire, or just use it. This very February, archaeologists found evidence of Neanderthals using fire 170,000 years ago to make better hardwood weapons in Tuscany. Some archaeologists even argue that humans couldn't have spread to the northern climes before they had fire; some even think the evolution of our big brains depended on the superior nutrition afforded by cooking; some think we managed with opportunistic blazes. Either way, the question remains, when we could light fire because we wanted to.

Wood-on-wood friction is famous as a fire-sparker but it isn't durable, and if anybody used that in antiquity, we will probably never know. But the other system was rock-on-rock, usually flint struck against some form of pyrite, which would create typical marks on the stones, and that we can find. Sorensen and the team have pointed out before that primitive extant hunter-gatherers often used pyrite, or marcasite (a similar mineral) to spark fires.

Fire in the hole

Fire-striking systems using pyrites are common throughout human prehistory, in most of the continents, with the exception of Africa. There such systems have very rarely been detected. But fire-strikers seem to have existed earlier, in the Paleolithic.

One problem with identifying prehistoric fire-strikers is that pyrite corrodes and disintegrates in humid air. But like bones and foodstuffs, under special circumstances, pyrite can be preserved.

And one problem with finding flints used to make fire is that the ancients may not have had "pet" fire flints, but made use of whatever bit of rock was conveniently at hand, so they wouldn't accrue markings.

Now Andrew Sorensen from Leiden University of the Netherlands and colleagues suggest that Mousterian-era Neanderthals in what is today France were capable of regular, systematic fire production, based on microscopic analysis of marks on biface stone tools.

Human (left) and Neanderthal skulls: Maybe they also learned to control fire.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The team found this oblique evidence at a host of Neaderthal sites around France, from Bordeaux to Pau to Toulouse. Most was found at a site around 50,000 years old. (By that time we are absolutely certain that Homo sapiens could control fire, by the way.)

Analysis of polish and striation marks suggests that flint tools normally used by the Neanderthals for other things, like butchering animals, were banged against a suitable other rock, such as pyrite, to spark flame. The location and nature of the polish and striations on the flint tools are comparable with the marks obtained by having students bash fragments of pyrite against the surfaces of tools.

Specifically, the students did this using 32 surfaces on eight replica flint biface tools and four scrapers, which they hit with pyrite. They wanted to test the bifaces' efficacy in making fire and to compare the marks. Ultimately, the team suggests that the Neanderthals living in France in the Middle Paleolithic period, chiefly at a site dating 50,000 years ago, did not cavil at using their precious bi-facial tools and possibly other rock fragments as early "strike-a-lights".

The archaeologists also found extensive evidence that Neanderthals were using powdered manganese dioxide, which, whatever else it is, serves as a fire enhancer. Which proves nothing much, but it's intriguing.

"This mineral has been recovered from numerous Neandertal sides in southwest France, with some of the blocks showing evidence than they had been abraded to produce powder," Sorenson told Haaretz. "Whether they used the powder as pigment material for body painting or for use as a tinder enhancer during fire making (or both), we can’t say for certain at the moment, but they were definitely collecting and using it for something."

A separate study by Sorensen and others, in 2015, postulated that a point found at the Middle Palaeolithic site of Bettencourt (dating to around 75,000 to 85,000 years ago) in northern France is the oldest known tool used to make fire. If it was indeed used to make fire.  

In any case, if the Neanderthals of France learned to make fire around 50,000 years ago, it was evidently a tad late. We don't know when they went extinct once and for all in Europe, but it wasn't much later.

Could Homo sapiens have reached France much earlier than thought, and taught Neanderthals to make fire? Maybe. Or: "On the contrary, I wonder if modern humans might have learned this technology from Neanderthals upon coming into Eurasia," Sorensen shares a thought. "It is interesting to note that while most people assume early Upper Palaeolithic modern humans (i.e. the Aurignacian and Gravettian peoples) were able to make fire at will (myself included), there is virtually no archaeological evidence backing this up. Minus a handful of pyrite fragments, I do not know of any Aurignacian or Gravettian flint tools identified in the literature as ‘strike-a-lights’ or ‘fire making tools’," he says.

Maybe early humans had a completely different technique for making fire at will, he points out. He hopes to answer that question one day.

Also, the archaeologists do beg to point out that the Neanderthals or early humans could have been striking fire for eons earlier. But if the ancients didn't have designated technology (i.e., special rocks) for lighting fire, but opportunistically used whatever flint fragment happened to be around, or rubbed sticks together until that eureka moment - we might never recognize the ability.