Study Suggests Neanderthals Sparked Their Own Fire

Hand-axe wear suggests our hominid cousins used flint and pyrite to unleash Prometheus’ gift

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Every year, we find more evidence that our hominin cousins the Neanderthals shared commonalities with us; they made jewelry, appreciated beauty, buried their dead and possessed language. In fact, they are, at least partially, us—Neanderthal DNA makes up roughly 2 percent of the genome of people with European and Asian heritage. Now, Sarah Zhang at The Atlantic reports, a new study suggests they even possessed a technology that we believed only our species had mastered—making fire on demand.

Archaeologists have previously come across Neanderthal fire pits, and their ability to make fire-dependent substances like tar indicates that fire was an important part of their lifestyle. However, researchers surmised that the Neanderthals had to rely on natural events like lightning strikes and forest fires to give them Prometheus' gift, which they then had to painstakingly tend to preserve.

But Andrew Sorensen of Leiden University wasn’t so sure about that conclusion. Ancient humans could make fire on demand by smashing the naturally occurring mineral pyrite against flint, making a small shower of sparks that could be nursed into a larger fire. According to a press release, he wondered if Neanderthals might have possessed that simple technology as well. To investigate, he first collected chunks of flint off beaches in England. When struck right, flint rocks will flake, creating sharp hand-axes known as bifaces, which Neanderthals and early humans used for lots of daily tasks. Sorensen created his own bifaces in the lab, and then used them and pieces of pyrite to produce fire. Then he examined the microscopic marks left on the bifaces by the pyrite, which leave a very distinctive type of mark.

Sorensen and his team compared those with bifaces found at archaeological digs, searching for telltale signs that the flint had been used to start fires. “A hand-axe was the Neanderthal Swiss Army Knife,” he says in the release. “They used them for everything. But only making fire with pyrite would have produced this exact suite of use-wear traces.”

The team found that 26 surfaces on 20 bifaces recovered from Neanderthal sites in France showed these distinctive marks, indicating that they had won the quest for fire. The research appears in the journal Scientific Reports.

The finding is, to say the least, controversial. Dennis Sandgathe, expert in stone technology at Simon Fraser University, not involved in the study, tells Ben Guarino at the Washington Post that the technique of comparing experimental “wear patterns” to artifacts is not an exact science. Sorensen agrees, but he thinks the idea that Neanderthals sparked up their own fires makes more sense than the wildfire theory. He acknowledges, however, that it’s possible the scratches were created by some other task we don’t know about. “We always explain that it's an interpretation,” he says.

There are other reasons to exercise a healthy sense of skepticism toward the claim. In a separate interview with Zhang of the Atlantic, Sandgathe says that he has previously looked at caves occupied 40,000 to 100,000 years ago, where his team found that fire pits were common during warm periods—when lightning would be more likely—not in cold periods. Also, he’s never found a biface and pyrite together in the same layer. Then again, he says the archaeological record, when it comes to what was going on 50,000 years ago, is woefully incomplete.

Guarino reports that Sorensen hopes to follow up on the study to see if the earliest humans used the same or similar technologies to make fire. It’s even possible we learned the technique itself from Neanderthals, he speculates. Which would mean Neanderthals gave us more than just a little DNA. They also gave us the eternal gift of barbecue.

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