Did humans colonize the northern latitudes without fire?

Wil Roebroeks and Paola Villa Roebroeks:Villa:2011 review the evidence for human control and use of fire in the archaeology of Europe during the Middle Pleistocene (130,000-780,000 years ago) and earlier. They observe that no evidence of human-controlled fire occurs in Europe before 400,000 years ago. This raises a puzzle: How did humans occupy the northern part of Europe without fire?

The argument about the antiquity of fire is not new. There is very early evidence of fire at Swartkrans, Koobi Fora, and Chesowanja, which includes burned bones and heated artifacts, along with clay nodules that show evidence of heating as high as 400 degrees Celsius. The criticism of these early finds (reviewed by James James:1989) centers around the difficulty of distinguishing human-made fire from natural bush fires. The association of the fire with artifacts can be readily explained: archaeologists only look for evidence of fire where they already have artifacts. The remaining question is whether artifacts or bones have been heated to temperatures hotter than those possible in bush fires, thereby providing evidence of human involvement. Burned bone from Swartkrans at least did reach such temperatures, seemingly unlikely without human involvement given their presence in the cave. I tend to think that humans did control fire early in some cases.

Roebroeks and Villa do not dispute possible earlier evidence of fire, but claim that it was not habitual. Or to put it another way, some early humans may have used fire, but many or most did not do so. The lack of fire seems particularly surprising in the northern latitudes of Europe, where sites like Happisburgh (and Pakefield) show evidence of human habitation in the late Lower Pleistocene. Their review of the early sites is really worth reading and impressively compact. Nonetheless, I can't quote it in full; it's just too much text to extract. After a discussion of the earliest archaeological occurrences, they turn to the long sequences from Arago and Gran Dolina, where we really should expect to see some evidence of fire if people were using it.

Arago and Gran Dolina contain long sequences and large quantities of lithic and faunal remains, subjected to taphonomic analyses (3436). Their settings are comparable to the ones that, in later times, have often provided strong evidence of fire, such as Bau de lAubesier, Grotte XVI, and Lazaret in France; Bolomor Cave in Spain (Dataset S1); and Middle Paleolithic/Middle Stone age caves in Israel and in South Africa. Traces of fire have been found in the upper part of the sequence at Arago, in layers younger than 350 ka. No charcoal, no burnt bones, nor any other evidence of fire have been reported from any of the assemblages from the lower levels (dated to MIS 1014). No charred bones or heated artifacts have been reported from the Gran Dolina sequence (TD4 TD10). Rare charcoal particles have been found in thin sections of the TD6 sediments, but these sediments originate from the exterior of the cave, and there is evidence of low-energy transport (37); thus, the charcoal may not be in situ. However, the high density of human, faunal, and lithic remains as well as their state of preservation and refitting studies (38, 39) clearly indicate an occupation in situ with little postdepositional disturbance. The absence of any heated material from the long sequences of Gran Dolina and Arago, both documenting hominin occupations over several hundred thousand years (36, 40), is striking. This is a strong pattern, which can be tested by future work at other hominin habitation sites. We suggest that the European record displays a strong signal, in the sense that, from ~400 to 300 ka ago, many proxies indicate a habitual use of fire, but from the preceding 700 ka of hominin presence in Europe, we have no evidence for fire use.

One thing that really impressed me visiting Roc de Marsal last summer was that the site preserves a long archaeological sequence in which some levels are densely packed with charcoal and the remains of hearths, and at least one well-defined layer, with abundant evidence of tools and debitage, just has hardly any evidence of fire at all. These were Neandertals, not Middle Pleistocene Homo, and they managed to get by without leaving any clear evidence of fire even though many Neandertal populations clearly did control and use fire extensively, including at this very site at other times.

There really were people living in the Pleistocene of Europe who didn't use fire very much, at least as evidenced by relatively long cultural deposits in well-stratified rock shelters and caves. Unfavorable preservation can explain the lack of charcoal or hearths at some sites, but not all of them. If we don't have a single good instance of fire in Europe before 400,000 years ago, people may well have done without it.

The authors' review of fire evidence after 400,000 years ago in Europe is also very useful, and they include supplementary data table with fuller information and references for all the sites they discuss. It is impressive just how much evidence has accumulated over the years, and Roebroeks and Villa have doggedly tracked it down. They conclude that Neandertals had essentially the same degree of control of fire as Upper Paleolithic humans, and consider the use of fire as a processing step in the manufacture of complex tools:

A recent study provides evidence of early modern humans at the site of Pinnacle Point in Southern Africa regular use of heat treatment to increase the quality and efficiency of their stone tool manufacture process 164 ka ago (13). The authors infer that the technology required a novel association between fire, its heat, and a structural change in stone with consequent flaking benefits that demanded an elevated cognitive ability. They also suggest that, when these early modern humans moved into Eurasia, their ability to alter and improve available raw material may have been a behavioral advantage in their encounters with the Neandertals. However, this interpretation ignores that Neandertals used fire as an engineering tool to synthesize birch bark pitch tens of thousands of years before some modern humans at Pinnacle Point decided to put their stone raw material in it. In more general terms, a greater control and more extensive use of fire is sometimes (12) seen as one of the behavioral innovations that emerged in Africa among modern humans and favored the spread of modern humans throughout the world. As stressed by Daniau et al. (52), if extensive fire use for ecosystem management were indeed a component of the modern human technical and cognitive package, one would expect to find major disturbances in the natural biomass burning variability associated with and after the colonization of Eurasia by modern humans. In their study of microcharcoal particles from two deep-sea cores off of Iberia and France, spanning the 70- to 10-ka period of biomass burning, the authors did not recover any sign that Upper Paleolithic humans made any difference: either Neandertals and modern humans did not affect the natural fire regime, or they did so in comparable ways.

I do think the silcrete processing is interesting, but so is the pitch processing. For that matter, the possibility of fire-hardening in the Schoeningen spears would be a case of deliberate production of a complex tool using fire (complex, in that the fire-processing adds a step).

Gesher Benot Ya'aqov, in Israel dating to around 800,000 years ago, is a highly compelling site in terms of evidence of fire. There are distinct hearth areas that correlate with archaeological scatter and have burned nut hulls and other foodstuffs. While Roebroeks and Villa express skepticism about the earlier evidence from Africa (specifically pointing to the high likelihood of bush fire as an explanation), they do accept Gesher Benot Ya'aqov as a likely fire location, while discussing the strength of the evidence. It's not such a high threshold to set; it seems like other sites should be able to meet it if fire was common.

Personally, I am quite ready to accept that fire was invented many times by Lower Pleistocene humans and may have occurred in some regions of the world ephemerally. The maintenance of this tradition may have been a challenge that these early humans couldn't meet over long spans of time. This view does imply that the advantages of fire, including cooking, were not a typical part of the repertoire of Early Paleolithic people. But that would be consistent with what we understand of traditions in other species of primates; where one population may be pursuing complex and apparently valuable extractive foraging that another population lacks, despite otherwise being ecologically similar.