Use of fire by Neanderthals

Ruth Blasco from the CENIEH has published a study on Eurasian sites from the Middle Pleistocene, which highlights the revolution entailed by fire in the last stages of the animal processing sequence among Neanderthal populations

Ruth Blasco, expert in Taphonomy at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), is co-author of a study published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews on Eurasian sites from the Middle Pleistocene, which confirms the importance of fire in the final activities of processing of animal resources, right from when controlled use by Neanderthal populations began.

When and where control over fire was gained is one of the most debated questions in the scientific literature, not only because of how difficult it is to identify this in ancient contexts, but also with a view to understanding how human groups came to incorporate fire into their domestic and daily activities.

There is widespread consensus that the first use of fire was in Europe between 300,000 and 400,000 years ago, although its archaeological signal is not continuous or is poorly established until around 100,000 years ago. This is why the chronological range mentioned is of special importance for those researchers interested in exploring how this phenomenon arose and the behavioral changes this entailed.

This study confirms the importance of fire in the social organization and perception of inhabited spaces

The starting hypothesis is that the introduction of thermal properties into the fauna sequence theoretically brought about significant advantages, such as the elimination of pathogens, new and more efficient processing patterns, access to nutrients difficult to acquire and the appearance of possible techniques of preservation, such as smoking.

Just as has been suggested by many other researchers, this study confirms the importance of fire in the social organization and perception of inhabited spaces; nevertheless, the zooarchaeological data compiled suggest that this technology had little influence on techniques for obtaining animals, by contrast with the important changes observed in the final stages of processing (roasting, heating to extract marrow more easily, etc.), and spatial distribution patterns in discarding the remains.

In its conclusion, this work proposes as topics for reflection a number of problems which remain open today, such as learning whether this innovation was acquired immediately or progressively, and why human groups with and without fire coexisted in Europe despite how revolutionary this element was.

This paper is part of a special volume entitled "Neanderthals: ecology and evolution", published by Quaternary Science Reviews and edited by J.S. Carrión of the Universidad de Murcia, C. Lalueza-Fox of the CSIC-Universitat Pompeu Fabra, and J. Stewart of Bournemouth University, UK.