300,000-year-old hearth found In Israel

300,000-year-old hearth found In Israel

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Archaeologists conducting an excavation at a well-known archaeological site near Tel Aviv, Israel, have discovered the remains of a 300,000-year-old hearth , shedding new light on when ancient humans began using fire in their daily lives.

Scientists estimate that ancient humans began using fire over a million years ago, although exactly when is still not known. Until now, it was also unclear when humans starting using it on a regular basis, for example, for cooking daily meals. The findings confirm that they were doing this at least 300,000 years ago and hint at the fact that prehistoric humans already had a highly advanced social structure by then.

Evidence came from the Qesem Cave, an archaeological site near present day Rosh Ha’ayin, about 7 miles east of Tel Aviv, where excavations have been underway for more than a decade.  It is not the first time signs of fire were found in Qesem Cave - excavators have previously uncovered ash deposits and butchered bones dating back up to 400,000 years old. However, this is the first time that a hearth has been found.

The findings, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, revealed that the hearth was 6.5 feet in diameter at its widest point and was used repeatedly over time.  Scientists analysed a thick deposit of wood ash inside the cave using infrared spectroscopy and found to contain bits of bone and soil heated to high temperatures. Around the hearth, the team discovered remnants of stone tools that were clearly used for cutting meat. In contrast, flint tools found just a few meters away had a different shape, designed for other activities.

“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,” Dr. Ruth Shahack-Gross of the Kimmel Center for Archeological Science at the Weizmann Institute said. “They also tell us something about the impressive levels of social and cognitive development of humans living some 300,000 years ago.”

The Oesem Cave became famous in 2010, when a paper was published revealing that teeth found at the site were human and dated back to between 200,000 and 400,000 years.  The finding contradicted the popular theory that humans arose in Africa 200,000 years ago.  When asked whether the teeth provide evidence that Homo sapiens did not evolve in Africa, archaeologist Avi Gopher replied: “What I can say is that they definitely leave all options open. There's been a tendency for people to get so accustomed to the "out of Africa" hypothesis that they use it exclusively and explain any finding that doesn't fit it as evidence of yet another wave of migration out of Africa.”

By April Holloway

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