It’s long been known that Neanderthals used and controlled fire, but there was no archaeological evidence of them being able to make fire. Fire can be harvested from the wild — by carrying a branch set alight by a lightning strike, for example — and even maintained with some care and luck. Evidence of the use of fire, therefore, does not assume the ability to produce a flame on demand.
Prehistoric modern humans in the Upper Palaeolithic created fire by striking sharp flints against pyrite, an iron sulfide mineral. The strike casts sparks which ignite a bed of tinder material and boom goes the dynamite. This ability to make fire on demand radically changed humanity’s relationship with the world, creating liveable environments out of frigid ones, making previously inedible foods not just edible but tasty and nutritious and establishing the hearth as a core of community.
Determining when hominids first gained their Promethean skills is thus of pivotal significance in our understanding of the development of human ancestors’ culture, lifestyle and physical form. University of Leiden archaeologist Andrew Sorensen has been researching this issue since 2014, studying fire residues like charcoal and ash and fire-heated stone and bone materials from Neanderthal sites and comparing them to similar remains from modern human sites.
His research has born rich fruit: the first archaeological evidence that Neanderthals in the Middle Palaeolithic used the same technique to make fire 50,000 years before the present.
Together with French archaeologist Emilie Claud and Leiden Archaeology Professor Marie Soressi, [Sorensen] discovered very specific microscopic wear on flint hand-axes (also called bifaces) from the Middle Palaeolithic, the era of the Neanderthals. “I recognised this type of wear from my earlier experimental work. These are the traces you get if you try to generate sparks by striking a piece of flint against a piece of pyrite.” Only these hand-axes are much older than the fire making tools on which this wear has so far been found.
Sorensen and Claud studied dozens of hand-axes of about 50,000 years in age from various sites throughout France. They found the same distinctive wear on all of them. “This proves that it was not an incidental find, but that the Neanderthals could make fire on a large scale,” says Sorensen. And that is of huge significance. Sorensen explains: “Being able to make their own fire gives the Neanderthals much more flexibility in their lives. It’s a skill we suspected, but didn’t know for sure they possessed. That they figured out bashing two rocks together could produce a brand new substance (fire) completely unlike the parent materials gives us new insight into the cognitive skills of Neanderthals. It shows Neandertals possessed similar technological capabilities to modern humans, even though they sometimes behaved differently.”
With a combination of microscopic research and experiments, Sorensen discovered that the traces of wear were specific to fire making. “You see percussion marks in the shape of a letter C. You also see parallel scratches, or striations, along the length of the hand-axe and mineral polish on the surface.” He carried out various experiments to eliminate other causes of this distinctive wear. He used hand-axes to grind pigments, sharpen other tools, and for other pounding and rubbing activities using various types of stone. “A hand-axe was the Neanderthal Swiss Army Knife. They used them for everything. But only making fire with pyrite would have produced this exact suite of use-wear traces.”
The study has been published in the journal Scientific Reports and can be read in its entirety free of charge.
Here’s a neat video of Andrew Sorensen demonstrating how Neanderthals would have made fire using a flint hand-axe and pyrite to ignite a teeny pile of kindling.