Why Early Humans Built Fires in the Center of Lazaret Cave

A new study suggests pre-Neanderthals carefully placed their hearths to minimize smoke exposure while maximizing room for activities

a pair of hands lighting kindle with flint
Scientists tested 16 hearth locations inside Lazaret Cave near Nice, France, to determine how early humans used fire. Lebazele / Getty Images

A new study suggests pre-Neanderthals carefully placed their hearths to minimize smoke exposure while maximizing room for activities

Some 170,000 years ago, early humans in what is now southeastern France positioned their hearths strategically to minimize the amount of smoke that filled their cave dwellings. Continued for tens of thousands of years, reports Ruth Schuster for Haaretz, the practice seemingly points to prehistoric hominins’ capacity for spatial planning.

A trio of archaeologists from Israel’s Tel Aviv University used computer models to test 16 hypothetical hearth locations in Lazaret Cave, a site known for its lengthy occupation by Homo heidelbergensis, or pre-Neanderthals. The team, which published its findings in the journal Scientific Reports last month, concluded that the center of the cave was the ideal spot for a hearth, limiting smoke exposure while giving early humans enough room to conduct activities like socializing, cooking and making tools.

“Our study shows that early humans were able, with no sensors or simulators, to choose the perfect location for their hearth and manage the cave’s space as early as 170,000 years ago—long before the advent of modern humans in Europe,” says co-author Ran Barkai in a statement. “This ability reflects ingenuity, experience and planned action.”

black and white illustration of caveman gathering wood and kindling for fire inside of a cave
Placing the hearth in the center of the cave limited smoke exposure while giving early humans enough room to conduct activities like socializing, cooking and making tools. Stock Photo / Getty Images

Based solely on smoke exposure, the analysis identified the back of Lazaret Cave as the best place to position a hearth and the entrance of the cave as the worst. By choosing the center of the cave over either of these options, pre-Neanderthals balanced the health risks of inhaling smoke with the key role the hearth played in daily life, writes Amalyah Hart for Cosmos magazine.

“Here we show that the organization of space in the cave depended on the location of the hearth: It was optimally placed and the rest of the space was built around it,” Barkai tells Haaretz. “It seems first they decided where to place the fire and then it seems as if they planned: Let’s do the butchering here, hang the meat to dry here and sleep there.”

“Fire was used mainly for cooking, for warmth and roasting meat,” Barkai continues. “So it is clear that barbecue started 400,000 years ago. When you make fire in the enclosed chamber, tAccording to Haaretz, early humans occupied Lazaret Cave, located near Nice on the Mediterranean coast, between roughly 230,000 and 37,000 years ago. Since the 1950s, archaeologists have discovered 20 pre-Neanderthal bone fragments, including the remains of a child believed to be a mix of Neanderthal and Homo heidelbergensis, at the site.

Lazaret Cave’s 28 sediment layers have all been meticulously mapped, enabling the researchers to conduct their analysis without actually visiting the cave. The team focused its survey on layer UA25, which dates to about 170,000 to 150,000 years ago.

Factoring in smoke exposure levels established by the World Health Organization, the researchers identified four activity zones for each of the 16 proposed hearth locations: a red area that was unusable because of high smoke density, a yellow zone suitable for short-term occupation, a green area that had little smoke and a smoke-free blue zone. UA25’s sole hearth stood in an optimal 270-square-foot section of the cave. Other layers boasted multiple hearths “but always one in that ideal location,” Haaretz notes.

Fire Diagram
Model of smoke dispersal in a cave Kedar et al. / Scientific Reports

“Fire was used mainly for cooking, for warmth and roasting meat,” Barkai tells Alejandra Marquez Janse and Christopher Intagliata of NPR. “... When you make fire in the enclosed chamber, there is a danger of inhaling smoke. And this is not good for the health, and in many cases it does not allow one even to stay near the fire because of the smoke.”

Sarah Hlubik, a paleobiologist at George Washington University who was not involved in the study, tells NPR that the research points to early humans’ savvy response to a harsh climate.

“It was really cold,” she says. “It was not like the south of France today. So they had to make really intelligent decisions about where they lived, how they utilized those spaces. And what's interesting is that we can see that Neanderthals were making those choices and probably, you know, other humans at the same time, were making those choices and they were just as smart as we are.”