Israeli archaeologists have discovered a cave in which they believe prehistoric humans built fires 300,000 years ago, comprising perhaps the earliest evidence of the controlled use of fire.

The Qesem Cave, a paleolithic site outside Rosh Ha’ayin near Tel Aviv, showed signs of “unequivocal repeated fire building over a continuous period,” the Weitzmann Institute of Science said in a press release. “These findings not only help answer the question, they hint that those prehistoric humans already had a highly advanced social structure and intellectual capacity.”

Fire Pit Estimated at 300,000 Years Old Suggests Humans Have Been Enjoying Barbecues for a Long Time

Qesem Cave during excavation, arrow points to the hearth (Photo: Weitzmann Institute of Science)

The study, which is in its 13th year, is being conducted by Profs. Avi Gopher and Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University and Dr. Ruth Shahack-Gross of the Kimmel Center for Archeological Science at the Weizmann Institute.

Shahack-Gross “identified a thick deposit of wood ash in the center of the cave. Using infrared spectroscopy, she and her colleagues were able to determine that mixed in with the ash were bits of bone and soil that had been heated to very high temperatures. This was conclusive proof that the area had been the site of a large hearth,” the Weitzmann Institute said.

To analyze the materials, Shahack-Gross sliced the ash into “extremely thin slices” so they would fit under a microscope which revealed the types of materials in the sample.

Fire Pit Estimated at 300,000 Years Old Suggests Humans Have Been Enjoying Barbecues for a Long Time

Researchers cut “extremely thin” slices of sediment from the hearth area so they could examine it under a laboratory microscope. This is a scan of one of those slices (Photo: Weitzmann Institute of Science)

The fire pit which was in the center of the cave measured 6.5 feet in diameter at its largest point. Around the hearth area, researchers found a large amount of flint tools that were used for cutting meat as well as stone tools designed for other purposes.

Also found were large numbers of burnt animal bones which archaeologists say demonstrates repeated building of fires for cooking meat.

The cave appeared to be divided into different organizational areas in which various “household” activities were conducted, showing “an organization of space – and a thus kind of social order – that is typical of modern humans.”

“These findings help us to fix an important turning point in the development of human culture – that in which humans first began to regularly use fire both for cooking meat and as a focal point – a sort of campfire – for social gatherings,” Shahak-Gross said. “They also tell us something about the impressive levels of social and cognitive development of humans living some 300,000 years ago.”

LiveScience provided more background on the debate over when fire was first used:

Anthropologists have debated what constitutes the earliest evidence of controlled fire use — and which hominin species was responsible for it. Ash and burnt bone in Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa suggests human ancestors used fire at least 1 million years ago. Some researchers, meanwhile, have speculated that the teeth of Homo erectus suggest this early human was adapted to eat food cooked over a fire by 1.9 million years ago. A study out last year in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal argued that fire-builders would have needed some sophisticated abilities to keep their hearths burning, such as long-term planning (gathering firewood) and group cooperation.

“The researchers think that these findings, along with others, are signs of substantial changes in human behavior and biology that commenced with the appearance in the region of new forms of culture – and indeed a new human species – about 400,000 years ago,” the Weitzmann Institute concluded.

The Israeli study was published in the January 2014 Journal of Archaeological Science.

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