Scientists find signs of ancient man-made fire
Scientists have uncovered remnants of an ancient fire, at least 1 million years old, at the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa.
April 2nd, 2012
03:00 PM ET

Scientists find signs of ancient man-made fire

You may be clueless about how to start a fire in the wilderness without matches or a lighter, but our ancestors may have figured it out long ago.

Scientists have uncovered evidence that humans used fire at least 1 million years ago, potentially for cooking purposes. The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Michael Chazan of the University of Toronto led an investigation into the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa. The team found burned bones and ash plant material, including grasses, leaves and twigs. The bones originated from a variety of animals: small rodents, antelopes and horselike mammals.

"The evidence that we have is compatible with low temperatures of cooking, but it’s a little bit too early to be sure" if these early humans were cooking or not, said Francesco Berna, research assistant professor of archaeology at Boston University, and lead author of the study on the findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It's possible that the early humans ate raw meat and then threw the bones into the fire, Berna said. Scientists need to investigate further to prove that, indeed, they ate cooked meat.

The findings support the conclusions of a 2011 study led by Harvard researchers suggesting that the human ancestor species Homo erectus, which walked upright and had a smaller brain than our species, could have cooked its food. Homo erectus has smaller molars than its evolutionary predecessors, which could be because it was adapted to a cooked food diet as early as 1.9 million years ago.

Berna and colleagues also found small hand axes and other tools made out of stones in the cave, which is about 460 feet deep. About 98 feet in, they found the evidence of fire. There's no evidence that the materials they found were burned outside and then brought into the cave, or that a wildfire could have spread from the surrounding area into the cave.

"I don’t think there’s any doubt that humans and fire were there at the same time," Berna said.

Prior to the new findings, scientists had good evidence that humans had total control over fire at least 400,000 years ago, Berna said.

The researchers' next steps are to excavate more to see whether they find any clues about cooking, and potentially re-analyze other sites in East Africa and Europe.

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Filed under: Human ancestors • On Earth
soundoff (597 Responses)
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    April 5, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
  8. Darth Cheney

    Wow – not only did we master fire 10^6 years ago, we already showed some appreciation for "low and slow" cooking!!!

    April 5, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  9. Misled again

    Once again, journalism at its finest – a headline suggesting man "made" fire, while the accompanying article is in fact about the possible use of fire, with no evidence or even suggestion that it may have been man-made.

    April 5, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • lunchbreaker

      Why waste time making a fire when you can can go look for one.

      April 5, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  10. Rob

    I find the whole atheist, Christianity argument quite funny! Ignorant people quoting things that they truly have no understanding of... Look people it's quite simple really, God is science. God is everything and we are truly not smart enough to wrap our minds around what Gods plan truly is and was. It clearly says in the bible that a day to God is like a thousand years to us so when man was sitting around and writing the bible there would be no way that he could ever wrap his mind around what God was telling him about creation. Wake up and try to look past the literal. Simple fact is this when you look at things on the cellular level it is not hard to come to the conclusion that there is a design here. Even scientist do not deny that... Theories are just that theories entrenched in scientific method but really cannot be proven or else they would not be called a theory, let's get that fact straight. You cannot push the evolution theory on me anymore than I can push the creation theory on you. They both require quite a bit of faith to believe. However I will offer you this. There are scientific laws and this one little law is called the law of thermodynamics and it states that if something is left to itself it will eventually destroy itself.... So tell me if this is true and it's a law, then how can evolution be fact? It's ok I'll wait...

    April 4, 2012 at 10:59 pm |
    • Primewonk

      "God is everything and we are truly not smart enough to wrap our minds around what Gods plan truly is and was."

      Ah, the old, "it's too hard for me to understand, therefore, it must be too hard for everyone else to understand" line of bull.

      You also wrote, " when you look at things on the cellular level it is not hard to come to the conclusion that there is a design here. Even scientist do not deny that... "

      Except, of course, that this is a lie. Actual scientists most certainly do not say that there is design at the cellular level.

      You alsoo wrote, " Theories are just that theories entrenched in scientific method but really cannot be proven or else they would not be called a theory, let's get that fact straight. "

      This statement gets to the heart of the matter. You have chosen to be ignorant about science – at it's most basic level. In science we do not prove things, we explain things. Proofs are for maths and ethanol. In science, a theory is as high as it gets. Theories never get proven or promoted to fact or law. Theories exist to explain sets of facts and laws.

      If you do not even understand what a theory is, why the hell do you think you understand science in general, or evolution in particular?

      Your post is an excellent example of what happens when folks choose to get their "sciency" sounding information from non-science sources like the "Pastor Dave's" of the world. The problem is that "Pastor Dave" is just as ignorant about science as his minions.

      April 5, 2012 at 8:31 am |
    • lunchbreaker

      I find your argument funny.

      April 5, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  11. Michael

    The closest I personaly came to GOD or an understanding of what man terms GODHOOD was when I asked my god at the time, my Gramps, Is there a god? He answerd back, Why ask me, I am but a man! In less than a minute he went from godhood to a man. By that simple answer I did not need to ask of him any more than upon the sueject, and found more wisdom and knowlege than all the inane comments by those who talk of the unknowable. A pile of bones were found that were burned by what or means and by what and whom the finders can only make * conjectors* about, and so my conscious mind will add this data to what ever knowlege I at preseNt have and along with whatever future relevant data comes forth will be added so, I, being just a man, will not waste time arguing with fools, and continue my personal search for TRUTHS.

    April 4, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  12. Yoda

    If they tossed the animals into a fire they would have smelled the burning meat. If they smelled the burning meat they would have been enticed to eat cooked meat because cooked meat smells a whole lot better than raw meat. Seems pretty obvious.

    April 4, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  13. calvin

    Did we make fire a million years ago ? Don't know, I wasn't there, LOL. Anyway, who cares ?

    April 4, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  14. palintwit

    One time I saw a prehistoric teabagger by the side of the road with his arm all the way up a dinosaur's @ss. "Car trouble?" I asked.

    April 4, 2012 at 10:21 am |

    Therefore the principles of human evolution from an insane species require a virgin birth of Adam and Eve for the establishment of a moral and just human government (Isaiah 9:6).

    April 4, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • Moo


      I am fairly certain this does not deserve a response.

      April 4, 2012 at 2:39 pm |

    Finite Universe – zero and one are equal (matter can be infinitely divided into nothing – God is Nothing that created everything out of emptiness) "At the Planck distance and the Planck time all physics, as we know it today collapses. This is the reason we call the beginning of the big bang a singularity. You cannot apply ordinary reasoning there. Zero and one have no sense there.OK?" J-P Burri There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Big Bang views one and zero as being equal, since it states that zero appeared out of the absence of zero; then zero created something. Many scientists believe or have faith that light does not have mass, thus they believe the Universe is Finite. Religion promotes the most commonly accepted idea of the group. If light does not have mass, then it would be impossible to move an electron. Light described as a particle means nothing, if it has no mass since it would be impossible to distinguish from nothing because no mass means void of substance. If it has no substance, then nothing is present to distinguish the particle from other particles.
    The Big Bang theory prevents any condition where something has always been. Infinity is defined as the difference between one and zero. Once one and zero are the same according to the big bang, the definition of infinity as stated above is no longer valid. If the big bang occurred, all math's must deal with the proof of 0=1.

    Infinite Universe – zero is not equal to one (there is a point where matter can't be divided – God is Something that can neither be created nor destroyed that is dependent on nothing.) An infinite universe lacks a beginning, so there is no one set past or a given future. The infinite Universe supports the view that all particles considered to be energy have mass or substance; that there is one fundamental particle which accounts for all the diverse forms of matter in the Universe. It is the ultimate example of team work, since it fundamentally has no reason to destroy itself. So, why does evil exist? Free will and without freewill, God would lack choice. Balance is the nature of perfection in the Infinite Universe. In an infinite Universe the total amount of something remains constant. When an atom is divided it no longer has the characteristics of the original element. There is a point where matter can't be divided and at this point something and nothing are distinctly defined. In the infinite Universe, the term infinite is used to describe the difference between something (1) and nothing (0). There is an infinite difference between zero and one.

    April 4, 2012 at 9:34 am |
    • Primewonk

      If you are going to denigrate science, it would behoove you to have at least a rudimentary understanding of what it is you are denigrating.

      April 4, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • palintwit

      Your post is too long. Not many people will read it. I know I won't. But then again, we Palins only have the attention span of a fruit fly. You've heard the phrase "dumber than a box of rocks"? It refers to us Palins.

      April 4, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • Annoyed

      Seriously, dude, what's wrong with you?

      April 5, 2012 at 7:41 am |
  17. 2bits

    A million years ago we made fire. Today we make Radiation. In a million years we will make antimatter that will accidentally escape and blow us all up!

    April 4, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • Spock

      Isn't that what was already supposed to happen at the LHC? I seem to recall a lot of hoopla about a black hole swallowing us when it was powered up.

      April 4, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • doughnuts

      We've been making anti-matter for a couple of decades. In a million years antimatter will be ancient technology.

      April 4, 2012 at 9:44 am |
      • The_Mick

        We haven't been making anti-matter for "a couple decades." When I was in college in the 1960's I learned anti-matter had first been man-made and identified in the 1930's. By the 60's or 70's at the latest, it was being made and stored in magnetic "bottles" where the big mystery was why, instead of leaking out of the bottles through the magnetic "walls", it was leaking out from the center of the bottles!

        April 5, 2012 at 3:42 am |
    • Anark E

      We never made fire. We just learned how to use it.

      April 4, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
      • RG Dubz

        EPIC FAIL

        Man discovered fire..

        How does an article with a headline like this even get published?

        April 4, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
      • lunchbreaker

        That's like saying no one has ever "made" a cake, they just learned how to assemble ingredients.

        April 5, 2012 at 9:12 am |
      • Clay Vollers

        That would be the differance between "discovery" and "invention". The atricle says "used", not "dicovered", not "invented", not "made". Actually "read" the words that are printed...

        April 8, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  18. LIP

    I just wasted ten minutes of my life reading this dribble...get a life

    April 4, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • torion

      I would suggest a reading class if that took you 10 minutes

      April 4, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • DD

      The article is educational and enlightening. So many people today have little depth or interest in science.

      April 4, 2012 at 10:18 am |
      • Damon

        Agreed. It's very unfortunate.

        April 8, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
    • Bob

      It took you 10 minutes to read this??

      April 4, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • Alex Eastman

      it appears as if you spelled "I need to learn how to read" wrong

      April 4, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • Big Marcus

      I'm sure that if you look, there is an article on Jessica Simpson that may be more your speed.

      April 5, 2012 at 11:31 am |
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