Research suggests another way Neanderthals were like us: They could start their own fires

July 19, 2018 by Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times
Credit: Junior Libby/public domain

Humans may not have been the only hominids who knew how to start a fire long ago. New research suggests that as early as 50,000 years ago, Neanderthals wielded this power as well.

The work, published Thursday in Scientific Reports, provides new evidence that Neanderthals may have created flames-on-demand by striking a small piece of against a biface—their favorite mutlipurpose stone tool.

Scientists already knew that Neanderthals were able to control and use , but controlling it and producing it are not the same thing, said Andrew Sorensen, a doctoral student in archaeology at Leiden University in the Netherlands who led the work.

"There is an ongoing debate in the world of early fire research as to whether Neanderthals could make fire for themselves, or if they were reliant on natural sources like wildfires started by lightning strikes from which they could collect fire later," he said.

Early humans created fire by striking steel or pyrite against flint to create a shower of , Sorensen said. The sparks fell on tinder, causing it to smolder. Then they would place a piece of that smoldering material into a bundle of dried grass, for example, and gently blow it into a flame.

Sorensen wondered if Neanderthals might have employed a similar technique.

To answer that question, he experimented with creating fire himself by striking a piece of pyrite against a replica of a biface. Then he compared the marks he made on his biface to marks on 50,000-year-old bifaces collected in several locations in France.

Bifaces are palm-sized, teardrop-shaped, multipurpose that functioned like a Neanderthal Swiss army knife.

They carried them around with them as they moved from place to place and used them to butcher and skin animals, as well as to grind minerals into powder and to create other tools.

Sorensen said that the method of striking a small piece of pyrite against a biface was quite effective at producing sparks, although the results were variable.

"Some strikes produced only one spark, others produced showers of up to 10 sparks or so," he said.

He also found that the microscopic mineral traces made by striking or rubbing flint against his modern-day biface to create sparks were similar to those found on the ancient bifaces he examined.

To make sure that the traces couldn't have been made in other ways, he also experimented with using his stone tool to perform other tasks like grinding ochre to make pigment and using it to carve another flint .

Indeed, he found that the same mineral traces that were left on the ancient tools most closely compared with the traces produced when he struck or forcefully rubbed pyrite against his own biface.

It's tricky business trying to reconstruct the lifestyle of hominids who lived 50,000 years ago, and Sorensen is clear that his experiments do not provide definitive evidence that Neanderthals used fire. It is always possible that there is another explanation.

"The traces made by pyrite were the 'best fit,'" he said. "But there could be some other mineral material that we just didn't think of that could create similar traces."

But until someone is able to demonstrate this, he said, fire-making appears to be the best interpretation.

And if that's the case, it's just one more piece of evidence that the capabilities of Neanderthals and early modern humans were not so different after all.

Explore further: How Neanderthals made the very first glue

More information: A. C. Sorensen et al. Neandertal fire-making technology inferred from microwear analysis, Scientific Reports (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-28342-9

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Thorium Boy
1.8 / 5 (10) Jul 20, 2018
Anthropology is as corrupt and warped a science discipline as climatology. They spend 99% of their time trying to pretend lesser species were the equal of man. They weren't, which is why they are dead. This ridiculous form of revisionist history political-correctness is terrible.
antialias_physorg
4 / 5 (12) Jul 20, 2018
"lesser species"?

I think you have some serious mental issues, pal.
rrwillsj
3.7 / 5 (3) Jul 20, 2018
Well TB, yah really need to stop gnawing on that hunk of pitchblende. It ain't doing your limited intellect any favors. And your breath? Whoaa! You'd knock a warthog over.

Since you lack the Neanderthal DNA of those of us whose ancestors enslaved yours? I'm hearing the whine of self-pity from your location.
TheGhostofOtto1923
5 / 5 (2) Jul 20, 2018
lesser species were the equal of man. They weren't, which is why they are dead
Lesser is not the appropriate word. I assume english is not your first language?

Neanderthal was most probably a temperate species whose reproduction had become seasonal. The repro rates of most species adapt to their environment.

Cromags were an invasive tropical species and as such, mated year round. They would have outgrown and overwhelmed neanderthal.

"No 2 species can occupy the same niche"

"The competitive exclusion principle, also called Gause's Principle, states that when two species compete for exactly the same resources (thus, they occupy the same niche), one is likely to be more successful. As a result, one species "outcompetes" the other species, and eventually the second species is eliminated."

Neanderthal were the fitter species in terms of natural selection but not in terms of group selection.
chuck_kritzon
not rated yet Jul 22, 2018
The author leaves out the idea that creating a friction fire using plant materials was the method of choice by most ancient peoples. Creating fire from sparks is not as easy as they describe. You cannot simply catch the spark in dry grass, you must have a prepared material that will catch the minuscule spark and then blow that into a small ember before it is then placed into a tinder bundle and blown into a flame. In Europe a polyspore fungus was processed into such a material also called "true tinder fungus". Check out the contents of Otzi's pouch.
andyf
5 / 5 (4) Jul 22, 2018
Chuck, you haven't been paying attention. From the article:

Early humans created fire by striking steel or pyrite against flint to create a shower of sparks, Sorensen said. The sparks fell on tinder, causing it to smolder. Then they would place a piece of that smoldering material into a bundle of dried grass, for example, and gently blow it into a flame.

jonesdave
3.7 / 5 (6) Jul 22, 2018
Anthropology is as corrupt and warped a science discipline as climatology. They spend 99% of their time trying to pretend lesser species were the equal of man. They weren't, which is why they are dead. This ridiculous form of revisionist history political-correctness is terrible.


Oh jeez; yet another dick. Gets boring after a while, eh?
Just say what you mean, woo boy; "I went to school. I was crap. Everybody laughed at me, because I was dumb. Now I go on science website comment sections and pretend that I understand things! I don't, but how will they know?"
Go away, dickhead. Science really isn't your thing, is it dear?
chuck_kritzon
5 / 5 (1) Jul 22, 2018
I was corrected regarding my comment about the tinder, thanks. The author still overstates the use of making sparks from mineral sources by not including friction fire techniques as the most pervasive in the ancient world.

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