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On the earliest evidence for habitual use of fire in Europe

On the earliest evidence for habitual use of fire in Europe

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Published by orcense
The timing of the human control of fire is a hotly debated issue,
with claims for regular fire use by early hominins in Africa at ∼1.6
million y ago. These claims are not uncontested, but most archaeologists
would agree that the colonization of areas outside Africa,
especially of regions such as Europe where temperatures at time
dropped below freezing, was indeed tied to the use of fire. Our
review of the European evidence suggests that early hominins
moved into northern latitudes without the habitual use of fire. It
was only much later, from ∼300,000 to 400,000 y ago onward, that
fire became a significant part of the hominin technological repertoire.
It is also from the second half of the Middle Pleistocene
onward that we can observe spectacular cases of Neandertal pyrotechnological
knowledge in the production of hafting materials.
The increase in the number of sites with good evidence of fire
throughout the Late Pleistocene shows that European Neandertals
had fire management not unlike that documented for Upper
Paleolithic groups.
The timing of the human control of fire is a hotly debated issue,
with claims for regular fire use by early hominins in Africa at ∼1.6
million y ago. These claims are not uncontested, but most archaeologists
would agree that the colonization of areas outside Africa,
especially of regions such as Europe where temperatures at time
dropped below freezing, was indeed tied to the use of fire. Our
review of the European evidence suggests that early hominins
moved into northern latitudes without the habitual use of fire. It
was only much later, from ∼300,000 to 400,000 y ago onward, that
fire became a significant part of the hominin technological repertoire.
It is also from the second half of the Middle Pleistocene
onward that we can observe spectacular cases of Neandertal pyrotechnological
knowledge in the production of hafting materials.
The increase in the number of sites with good evidence of fire
throughout the Late Pleistocene shows that European Neandertals
had fire management not unlike that documented for Upper
Paleolithic groups.

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On the earliest evidence for habitual use of 
rein Europe
Wil Roebroeks
a,1
and Paola Villa
b,c,d,1
a
Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, 2300 RA, Leiden, The Netherlands;
b
University of Colorado Museum, Boulder, CO 80309-0265;
c
Unité Mixte deRecherche 5199, de la Préhistoire á l
Actuel: Culture, Environnement, et Anthropologie, Institut de Préhistoire et Géologie du Quaternaire, 33405 Talence,France; and
d
School of Geography, Archaeology, and Environmental Studies, University of the Witwatersrand, Wits 2050 Johannesburg, South AfricaEdited* by Erik Trinkaus, Washington University, St. Louis, MO, and approved February 8, 2011 (received for review December 4, 2010)
The timing of the human control of
re is a hotly debated issue,with claims for regular
re use by early hominins in Africa at
1.6million y ago. These claims are not uncontested, but most archae-ologists would agree that the colonization of areas outside Africa,especially of regions such as Europe where temperatures at timedropped below freezing, was indeed tied to the use of
re. Ourreview of the European evidence suggests that early homininsmoved into northern latitudes
without 
the habitual use of
re. Itwas only much later, from
300,000 to 400,000 y ago onward, that
re became a signi
cant part of the hominin technological reper-toire. It is also from the second half of the Middle Pleistoceneonward that we can observe spectacular cases of Neandertal pyro-technological knowledge in the production of hafting materials.The increase in the number of sites with good evidence of
rethroughout the Late Pleistocene shows that European Neandertalshad
re management not unlike that documented for UpperPaleolithic groups.
human evolution
|
Paleolithic archeology
|
replaces
|
hafting adhesives
T
he emergence of stone tool manufacture and the control of 
re are undoubtedly the two most signi
cant events in thetechnological evolution of early humans. Although stone tool useand manufacture were regular activities from at least 2.6 million y ago (1), the timing of the human control of 
re is a contro- versial issue (2), with some claims for regular
re use by early hominins in Africa at
1.6 million y ago (3
5). Longer chro-nologies for the use of 
re include Wrangham
s recent hypothesisthat
re was a central evolutionary force toward larger humanbrains (6
9): eating cooked foods made early hominin digestioneasier, and the energy formerly spent on digestion was freed up,enabling their energy-expensive brains to grow. Using
re toprepare food made early humans move away from the formerfeed-as-you-go-and-eat-raw-food strategy and toward the sharingof cooked foods around
res, which became attractive locationsfor increased social interaction between individuals. Wranghamsituates these developments around the time of the emergenceof 
Homo erectus
, approximately two million y ago. Most arche-ologists would agree that the colonization of areas outside of  Africa, especially of regions such as Europe where temperaturesat time dropped below freezing (10), was tied to the use of 
reto bridge gaps in the energy budget and in resource availability during winter (11). For much later periods, a greater control andmore extensive use of 
re is seen by some (12, 13) as one of thebehavioral innovations that emerged in Africa among modernhumans, favoring their spread throughout the world and theireventual evolutionary success.How strong are these hypotheses? To what extent are they backed up by archeological data on hominin use of 
re? Ourfocus in this review is on Europe, an area of the Old World for which we have a rich record with a large number of samplingpoints distributed in time and space, with sites in a wide range of sedimentary contexts, from open-air sites to the closed settings of rock shelters and caves.
Results
Interpreting the Record.
Formost ofprehistoryuntil
10,000yago,hominins all over the world subsisted as hunters and gatherers, with a generally highly mobile lifestyle. Until the later phases of the Paleolithic, these mobile foragers invested very little in camplayout, in dwelling structures, or in the construction of formalhearths (14). The overwhelming majority of their traces consist of stone tools, the debris of stone tool production, and often butnot always food remains. With few exceptions (see below), pre-served
replaces are simple clusters of burnt materials occurringas
at lenses or in small hollows. The most common proxies for
re use consist of various
nd categories that display traces of having been submitted to heating: the reddened sediments on which a
re was built, heated stone artifacts, charred bone frag-ments, and pieces of charcoal. The problem is that other pro-cesses than human activities can create such
ndings too. Vol-canic eruptions can be an important factor in driving the natural
re regime in volcanically active areas. Lightning strikes
 with anaverage global
ash rate of an estimated 44
±
5
ashes per second(15)
or spontaneous combustion cause natural
res that canburn archeological camp sites. The remains of such grass andforest
res can become associated with archeological
nd mate-rials. Hence, charcoal, charred bone material, and heated
intsdo not necessarily indicate anthropogenic
res (2). At open-airsites, direct evidence for human
res, such as charcoal, can beeasily removed by natural processes, including erosion by wateror by wind (16). Thus, the context of possible
re indicators isimportant. If burnt bones, heated artifacts, and charcoal occur incaves or enclosed sites where the deposits are demonstrably insitu and are not reworked by slope wash or debris
ow enteringthe cave, then they can be considered good indicators of an-thropogenic
res. Much of the debate on the history of humancontrol of 
re relates to the problem of the correct interpretationof possible
re indicators, especially in the absence of modernexcavation techniques and detailed studies of site formation pro-cesses. In this last domain, signi
cant progress has been made by the application of micromorphological techniques to the study of combustion features in rock shelters and caves (17
20).
European Record.
The earliest traces of hominin presence inEurope come from its southern parts and date to more than onemillion yago (21). Recent data from the English site Happisburgh3 suggest that hominins may already have been adapted to thechallenging environments of the boreal zone in the Early Pleis-tocene, more than 800,000 y (800 ka) ago (10). Fire would have
Author contributions: W.R. and P.V. designed research; performed research; analyzeddata; and wrote the paper.The authors declare no con
ict of interest.*This Direct Submission article had a prearranged editor.Freely available online through the PNAS open access option.
1
To whom correspondence may be addressed. E-mail:w.roebroeks@arch.leidenuniv.nlorvillap@colorado.edu.This article contains supporting information online atwww.pnas.org/lookup/suppl/doi:10.1073/pnas.1018116108/-/DCSupplemental.
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March 29, 2011
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vol. 108
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no. 13
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been an important tool in such environments. However, surpris-ingly, evidence for use of 
re in the Early and early MiddlePleistocene of Europe is extremely weak. Or, more exactly, it isnonexistent, until
300
400 ka. Our review of the early Europeansites (Dataset S1) shows that the earliest possible evidence of 
recomes from two sites dated to
400 ka, Beeches Pit in Englandand Schöningen in Germany. At Schöningen, the evidence con-sists of some heated
ints (although mostly natural pieces) (22)and charred wood, including a wooden tool, with the studies of possible remains of former hearths still in progress (23). AtBeeches Pit, dated to Marine Isotope Stage (MIS) 11 (DatasetS1), the evidence consists of heated lithics and heated sediments(24, 25), interpreted as the remains of hearths. Terra Amata(France) and Vérteszöllös (Hungary) also provide credible evi-dence of 
re, but estimates of their age vary from MIS 11 to 9.Of direct relevance are sites that do not have traces of 
rebefore MIS 9
11. It could be argued that early open-air sites,such as those in the Orce region in Spain (26) or Isernia (27) andVenosa Notarchirico in Italy (28), have been affected by watertransport, which removed traces of former
res. The primary context Acheulian site of Boxgrove (29) in England likewise didnot yield any evidence for the presence of 
re use, a few scat-tered charcoal particles aside. The absence of heated materialfrom these and other Lower Paleolithic open-air sites could beascribed to the short-term occupation character of these sitesand/or their sedimentary history. However, open-air sites fromcomparable settings
do
yield traces of the former presence of 
refrom MIS 11 onward (e.g., Maastricht-Belvédère and Neumark-Nord 2;Dataset S1).Human occupations
without
 re
also occur at six LowerPaleolithic caves: Treugol
naya (Russia), Kozarnika (Bulgaria),Visogliano (Italy), Sima del Elefante (Spain), Arago (France),and Gran Dolina (Spain) (Dataset S1). The latter four sites also yielded hominin remains. The evidence from three sites, Treu-gol
naya, Kozarnika, and Sima del Elefante, is not yet suf 
cient tosupport a hypothesis of hominin habitation, however. To date,Sima del Elefante has yielded only 32 artifacts (21). The early layers of Treugol
naya and Kozarnika have a complex history of human and carnivore occupation. The
rst site has yieldeda small number of artifacts [395 (30)]; faunal remains representnatural mortality or carnivore accumulations, and there is evi-dence of stream transport of both lithics and bones (31). Thelowest levels at Kozarnika (32) have yielded a large numberof artifacts, but contextual and taphonomic data are sparse.In contrast, the rockshelter of Visogliano has yielded 2,000 arti-facts together with largenumbers of cervids (33). Arago andGranDolina contain long sequences and large quantities of lithicand faunal remains, subjected to taphonomic analyses (34
36).Theirsettingsarecomparable totheonesthat, in latertimes,haveoften provided strong evidence of 
re, such as Bau de l
 Aubesier,Grotte XVI, and Lazaret in France; Bolomor Cave in Spain(Dataset S1); and Middle Paleolithic/Middle Stone age caves inIsrael and in South Africa. Traces of 
re have been found in theupper part of the sequence at Arago, in layers younger than 350ka. No charcoal, no burnt bones, nor any other evidence of 
rehave been reported from any of the assemblages from the lowerlevels (dated to MIS 10
14). No charred bones or heated arti-facts have been reported from the Gran Dolina sequence (TD4
TD10). Rare charcoal particles have been found in thin sectionsof the TD6 sediments, but these sediments originate from theexterior of the cave, and there is evidence of low-energy transport(37); thus, the charcoal may not be in situ. However, the highdensity of human, faunal, and lithic remains as well as their stateof preservation and re
tting studies (38, 39) clearly indicate anoccupation in situ with little postdepositional disturbance. Theabsence of any heated material from the long sequences of GranDolina and Arago, both documenting hominin occupations overseveral hundred thousand years (36, 40), is striking. This is astrong pattern, which can be tested by future work at otherhominin habitation sites. We suggest that the European recorddisplaysastrongsignal,inthesensethat, from
400to300kaago,many proxies indicate a habitual use of 
re, but from the pre-ceding 700 ka of hominin presence in Europe, we have no evi-dence for
re use.From around MIS 9, we
nd extensive traces of the presenceof 
re in cave settings as well as in the open (Dataset S1). Theevidence from the multilevel site of La Cotte de Saint Brelade(Jersey, UK), for instance, shows that
re was extensively usedthroughout the MIS 7
MIS 4 occupation periods. There are in-dications of burning in every occupation layer here, with highdensities of burnt material and a predominance of burnt boneover wood charcoal. Apparently, in addition to wood, bone wasused as fuel as well (41). Spatial concentrations of heated
intartifacts and/or heated stones and charred faunal remains area common phenomenon on Middle Paleolithic open-air sites allover Europe (Dataset S1).It is also from the second half of the Middle Pleistoceneonward that we can observe some spectacular cases of pyro-technological knowledge in the production of hafting materials(42, 43), which some consider a proxy for complex, moderncognition (44) (Fig. 1 and
). Signi
cantly, several MiddlePaleolithic cave and open-air sites have multiple successive levelsrepresenting a long time span with clear evidence of 
re. Con-sider the 187 combustion structures in the many levels of AbricRomani in Spain, the 29 combustion structures of Ksiecia Jozefain Poland, the multiple levels of El Salt, St. Marcel, EsquilleuCave, Peyrards, La Combette, La Quina, St. Césaire, Oscu-rusciuto, and the
replaces of Roca dels Bous (Dataset S1). LesCanalettes, France, is a well-documented Middle Paleolithic site where lignite was repeatedly imported as fuel from a distance of 8
10 km (45). Fig. 2 and Table 1 show a threefold increase in thenumber of sites with good evidence of 
re during MIS 5 anda steady increase in MIS 4 and 3. Stone-lined or stone-delimited
replaces are not as common as in the late Upper Paleolithic(46
49), but they have been documented at a number of Mid-dle Paleolithic sites: Vilas Ruivas, Les Canalettes, La Combette,Bolomor layer XIII, Port Pignot, Abri du Rozel, Pech de l
 AzeII, Grotte du Bison, and Abric Romani (Dataset S1). Hearth-centered activities have been suggested at the rock shelter site of  Abric Romani (50), at the open-air sites of La Folie (France) andKsiecia Jozefa (Poland) (Dataset S1), and in Western Asia at the
02 cm
Fig. 1.
Flint
ake from Campitello Quarry (Italy), still enclosed in its adhe-sive, produced more than 200,000 y ago (42)(
). Study of such adhesives(42, 43) showed that Neandertals used
re to synthesize from birch barka pitch for hafting stone tools (photograph courtesy of P. P. A. Mazza,Dipartimento di Scienze della Terra, Università di Firenze, Florence, Italy).
5210
|
 
site of Tor Faraj (51). We conclude that Middle PaleolithicNeandertals did not have to wait for lightning strikes, meteoritefalls, volcanoes, or spontaneous combustion: they had the ability to make, conserve, and transport
res during successive occupa-tions or at different sites, like ethnographically documented re-cent hunter-gatherers, a pattern comparable to that documentedin the Upper Paleolithic.
Modern Humans Versus Neandertals.
A recent study provides evi-dence of early modern humans at the site of Pinnacle Point inSouthern Africa regular use of heat treatment to increase thequality and ef 
ciency of their stone tool manufacture process164 ka ago (13). The authors infer that the technology requireda novel association between
re, its heat, and a structuralchange in stone with consequent
aking bene
ts that demanded
an elevated cognitive ability.
They also suggest that, whenthese early modern humans moved into Eurasia, their ability toalter and improve available raw material may have been a be-havioral advantage in their encounters with the Neandertals.However, this interpretation ignores that Neandertals used
reas an engineering tool to synthesize birch bark pitch tens of thousands of years before some modern humans at PinnaclePoint decided to put their stone raw material in it. In moregeneral terms, a greater control and more extensive use of 
re issometimes (12) seen as one of the behavioral innovations thatemerged in Africa among modern humans and favored thespread of modern humans throughout the world. As stressed by Daniau et al. (52), if extensive
re use for ecosystem manage-ment were indeed a component of the modern human technicaland cognitive package, one would expect to
nd major dis-turbances in the natural biomass burning variability associated with and after the colonization of Eurasia by modern humans. Intheir study of microcharcoal particles from two deep-sea coresoff of Iberia and France, spanning the 70- to 10-ka period of biomass burning, the authors did not recover any sign that UpperPaleolithic humans made any difference: either Neandertals andmodern humans didnot affect the natural
reregime, or they didso in comparable ways.
Asian and African Records: A Comparison.
The European signal for
re use aligns well with what we know from other continents, where indications for habitual use of 
re are present from thesecond half of the Middle Pleistocene onward. As in Europe,
reseems to have become a maintainable technology between
400and 200 ka, as illustrated by the evidence from the cave site of Qesem in Israel. Here, micromorphological studies suggest thatrecrystallized wood ash was a major part of the cave depositsover a long time period and that, at least in the upper part of thesequence, repeated use of 
re was common (17). Another signalfor habitual
re use in the 300- to 200-ka period comes froma study of heated
ints from the Tabun site, also in Israel (53).Many later Middle Paleolithic sites have yielded a wide range of evidence for
re, in the form of the large combustion areas fromKebara or the hearths from Hayonim (54, 55). There are a fewclaims for earlier use of 
re in Asia, however, with the case of Zhoukoudian Locality 1 being the most contested one. Althoughthis site was considered for a long time to be the
re-lit home of 
 Homo erectus
, studies by Weiner and colleagues (56, 57) showedthat the
ashes
supposedly re
ecting former hearths were notashes at all: samples from Layers 10 through 3 showed extensive water deposition of 
ne silt-sized material (reworked loess),including
ne-grained organic matter. The dark, organic-richunit in Layer 10, often cited as some of the earliest evidence of 
re, is in fact a water-laid accumulation. Much of the
ne-grainedsediment was derived from outside Locality 1. The 4- to 6-maccumulation of supposed ashes in Layer 4 is interpreted assubaerial water-laid silt deposits derived from the loess-coveredhill slopes surrounding the site. With such a depositional envi-ronment, thepresence of charred bonefragments in the sequencecan hardly be considered as direct evidence for in situ burning(contra ref. 58).There is however, one well-established case for earlier re-petitive
re use in western Asia: the Acheulian site of GesherBenot Ya
aqov (GBY) in Israel, dating to
780 ka ago (59
61).Most of its many 
nd levels might be correlative with MIS 19,i.e., twice as old as the oldest sites with
re indicators in Europe.How strong is the evidence? GBY has both charred plant re-mains and heated microartifacts (
2 cm) occurring in localizedconcentrations in various levels throughout the sequence. Five
00.480.531.921.475.2510.020.910 5 101520 25> MIS 11MIS 11-9MIS 8MIS 7MIS 6MIS 5MIS 4MIS 3number of sites (per 10.000 years)
Fig. 2.
Number of sites with good evidence of
re (Table 1) per 10 ky. (SeeTable S1for age estimates of various MIS stages.) Sites with several layerscontaining evidence of
re are dated to different MIS score for each MISconcerned.
Table 1. Number of sites with good evidence of
re per 10 ky
MI StagesMIS durationin kyNumber ofsites withgood evidenceof
reNumber of siteswith evidence of
re per 10 ky
>
MIS 11
0 0MIS 11
9 124 6 0.48MIS 8 57 3 0.53MIS 7 52 10 1.92MIS 6 61 9 1.47MIS 5 59 31 5.25MIS 4 14 14 10.0MIS 3 (up to35 ka)22 46 20.91
Data based onDataset S1. Index of con
dence 2 and 3.
Roebroeks and Villa PNAS
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