Leiden researchers: The use of fire spread rapidly around the world 400,000 years ago

That Prometheus stole fire from the gods, as the Greek myth says, is highly improbable. But how and when exactly the first man learned to light a fire, science still does not know. Leiden scholars now have a hypothesis about the later period: how the use of fire subsequently spread throughout the world.

According to the published research In the scientific journal PNAS, the use of fire by hominins increased remarkably quickly between 400,000 and 350,000 years ago – seen on an archaeological time scale. Analysis of fire path locations indicates that this has occurred in all kinds of places around the world.

This is the main reason why researchers believe that the skill of making a fire was transmitted through social interactions between groups of early humans. If their hypothesis is correct, the researchers say it is the oldest example of so-called cultural diffusion.

mutual tolerance

Cultural diffusion is certainly not unique. But modern man – Homo sapiens – is often seen as characteristic of modern man that different cultures adopt innovations and habits from each other. The Leiden researchers believe that their findings show that the cultural behavior of hominins such as Neanderthals, Homo erectus and Denisovans was closer to Homo sapiens than to their descendants. The researchers say early humans also moved into complex social networks, met regularly and were tolerant enough to adopt skills from one another.

There are many ways in which innovations spread. Different peoples also inherited farming skills from each other. But since agriculture was “invented” independently of each other in several places in the world, the question arises whether this also applies to fire.

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The researchers argue that if a fire was also detected in multiple locations without interaction, there likely would not have been a sudden increase in fire use over the same period. Then more time passes. Unless there were some global external circumstances where fire would have benefited many groups of humans at the same time, such as a change in climate. However, according to the researchers, such a circumstance could not be determined.

Migration and reproduction

The researchers say other hypotheses are also unlikely. In theory, it is possible that fire did not travel elsewhere through cultural interactions, but through mass migration.

Gene transmission is another theoretical possibility. If the ability to start a fire gives a greater chance of survival, then individuals who have the genes suitable for fire will pass those genes on to subsequent generations. By procreating with an individual of another group, these genes can spread across multiple groups.

But according to the researchers, the migration and diffusion of genes will take much longer. In addition, the use of fire has been observed in genetically very different groups of humans. According to the researchers, this makes cultural diffusion most likely, although hard evidence for this is difficult to find: the history of the fire site has an accuracy of 10,000 years.

Stephen Payne, experts in the history of fire, suggests that there are also other things to consider. In conversation with New Scientist. The fire may have spread from one group to another, but in a less peaceful way than the Leiden study indicates: “I suppose the fire spread mainly from one tribe to another because it was stolen or pillaged.” Perhaps there was something of Prometheus in hominins after all.

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