Mysterious 300,000-Year-Old Early Humans Used Fire to Make Flint Blades
Experts in Israel believe that a mysterious group of early humans were using fire to manufacture flint blades and tools up to 300,000 years ago. This discovery has implications for our understanding of early human technology and social organization.
The Qesem Cave in the Judean hills of Israel is one of the most important early human sites in the Levant. Based on existing evidence, experts have concluded that the cave was occupied by hominins up to 300,000 years ago. The investigation in Israel has focused its attention on evidence of butchering and flint tools which have been found at the site. This study, “both visually and by thermoluminescence, has demonstrated that flint was clearly exposed to fire,” reports Human Behaviour. Flint has been found in many archaic human sites and was ideal for making tools and flint blades.
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Using Fire to Make Flint Blades
The researchers were interested in whether or not the flint objects had been subjected to fire deliberately. According to a team of researchers quoted in Human Behaviour “heat treatment of flint reduces its fracture toughness and therefore improves its knappability.” As a result, it would have been easier to convert the flint into tools, making it more practical to use. Filipe Natalio, one of the authors of the study, told Ancient Origins in an email that “on the modern samples and blind knapping experiments we saw an improved yield of blades, but we are not sure about their durability.”
Experts decided to determine if the flint found had been subjected to heat treatment. They took a sample of objects that were found at the lower level of the cave, which has remains from a very early period. The sample was of two types of flint, flint blades and flakes, as well as some pot lids. A combination of spectroscopy and machine learning was employed to estimate the temperature at which the flint and lids had been burnt.
The study analyzed the estimated temperatures needed to create different kinds of artifacts. (Aviad Agam et. al. / Human Behaviour)
Using Experimental Archaeology to Make Remarkable Discoveries
The experts established that the blades were heated at lower temperatures (259°C) than flakes (413°C). The pot lids had been burnt at an even higher temperature (447°C). To verify if the material had been heated intentionally, the archaeologists developed an experiment. They tested modern samples of flint and found that controlled heat can improve the production of flint blades.
The discoveries reached thanks to these experiments are remarkable, and would seem to suggest that the flint was deliberately heated. Fire was very important in human evolution and the tests show that up to 300,000 years ago that archaic humans used it for a variety of purposes. The fire likely used to treat the flint was also used for other purposes, given the problems of finding tinder and fuel. The researchers wrote in Human Behaviour that fire “served not only for stone tool production but can also be viewed as part of habitual fire-related behavior.”
Fire as Crucial Tool in the Battle for Survival
Fire played a crucial role in the survival of early humans and gave them a competitive edge in the battle for survival. By allowing more efficient blade production, it enabled them to hunt more and bigger animals. In email correspondence with Ancient Origins, Natalio explains that:
“the emergence of blade production coincides with the disappearance of large game and search for new sources of meat, for example, fallow dear. Butchering a fallow deer with a hand axe would have been less efficient.”
The burning of flint in the production of tools could tell us a lot about the archaic humans who lived at Qesem. Natalio highlighta that “fire is a form of social organization.” The deliberate treatment of material with heat may indicate a high level of social organization and even the transmission of knowledge. However, no fire has been found at the lower level where the samples were unearthed, and the blades may have been produced elsewhere.
The new research shows that flint was deliberately heated at different temperatures for the production of flint blades. This could have serious implications for our understanding of the evolution of pyro-technology in prehistory. (pict rider / Adobe Stock)
Who Were the Mysterious Humans at Qesem?
The discovery of pyro-technology shows that early humans had a high cognitive ability. In his email, Natalio told Ancient Origins that “early humans could control, think abstract and decide which fire parameters should be used to make either flakes or blades.” However, the experts have not been able to determine how long the manufacture of blades took place at Qesem and if it was continuous throughout its occupation.
The identity of the humans who occupied Qesem Cave is something of a mystery. The only human remains that have been found are teeth and they are not from Neanderthals nor Homo sapiens. Ancient Origins was told by Filipo Natalio that the researchers believe that the inhabitants were “a species that evolved locally.” Based on their tool production and their use and command of fire, this mysterious species of archaic humans was clearly advanced. Based on analysis of the artifacts discovered, experts believe that they were part of the Acheulo-Yabrudian complex, whose remains have been found throughout the Levant.
Researchers writing in Human Behaviour conclude that the results show that the heat-treated blades “can be viewed as part of a plethora of innovative and adaptive behaviors of Levantine hominins 300,000 years ago.” Their research is throwing light on the mysterious humans who lived in the cave. The methodology used in this research is also contributing to understanding the evolution of pyro-technology in prehistory.
Top image: A new study has found that mysterious early humans used fire to make different kinds of flint blades as far back as 300,000 years ago. Source: Gorodenkoff / Adobe Stock
By Ed Whelan