Neanderthals COULD start fires: Ancient flint tools reveal the hominids created their own flames 50,000 years ago and didn’t rely on wildfires

  • Scientists have long known that Neanderthals were adept with fire
  • They used it to create light and warmth as well as for cooking and protection
  • However, it wasn’t known if they made fire or were reliant on wildfires 
  • Marks on ancient tools reveal our ape-like cousins used them to create flames 
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Neanderthals did know how to start their own fires, just like early humans, a new study has found.

The ancient hominids used flint tools to spark up a flame as early as 50,000 years ago, and didn’t rely on wildfires as some researchers had previously thought. 

The finding supports the idea that Neanderthals possessed similar technological capabilities as their human cousins, even though they behaved differently.

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Neanderthals used flint tools to spark up a flame as early as 50,000 years ago, a new study suggests. Researchers identified mineral traces on these tools (pictured) that suggested they had been repeatedly struck with a hard mineral material

It settles a long-standing debate over whether Neanderthals sourced their fire through nature, or learned to create it themselves.

Study lead author Dr Andrew Sorensen, from Leiden University in the Netherlands, told MailOnline: ‘Neandertals having the ability to make fire certainly would have saved them a lot of time and energy.

‘If Neandertals were reliant on collecting natural fire, they would then have to continually feed the fire and carry it with them as the move from camp to camp so as not to lose their flame.

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‘If they could make their own fire, then they could produce it when and where they needed it and not have to worry about collecting lots of extra fuel to keep the fire going.’

Researchers studied previously discovered flint tools for signs that they could also have been used to start fires.

These bifacial tools (also known as bifaces or hand axes) were associated with Middle Paleolithic Neanderthal culture in what is now modern-day France.


This research supports the idea that Neanderthals possessed similar technological capabilities as modern humans, even though they behaved differently. Pictured are some of the bifacial tools, also known as bifaces or hand axes, that they studied

Bifaces are teardrop shaped tools that have convergent cutting edges and are generally between 6 – 15cm (2.3 – 6 inches) in length. 

They are called bifaces because flakes are removed from both sides of the tool as it is being shaped.

Researchers identified mineral traces on these tools that suggested they had been repeatedly struck with a hard mineral material.


These bifacial tools (also known as bifaces or hand axes) were associated with Middle Paleolithic Neanderthal culture in what is now modern-day France. Pictured are the locations of some of the tools

They believe this suggests they did use tools to start their own fires, according to the paper published in Scientific Reports.

Experts already knew Neanderthals were adept with fire – using it to create light and warmth as well as for cooking and protection from predators. 

‘While it’s sometimes difficult to say for sure what any one fire was specifically used for, but there are many possibilities’, Dr Sorensen told MailOnline.     

‘We have evidence that Neandertals used fire to shape wooden tools, as well as to make birch bark tar, the latter especially requiring quite advanced pyrotechnical knowledge’, he said. 

WHO WERE THE NEANDERTHALS?

The Neanderthals were a close human ancestor that mysteriously died out around 50,000 years ago.

The species lived in Africa with early humans for hundreds of millennia before moving across to Europe around 500,000 years ago.

They were later joined by humans taking the same journey some time in the past 100,000 years. 


The Neanderthals were a close human ancestor that perished around 50,000 years ago. The species lived in Africa with early humans before moving across to Europe around 500,000 years ago. Pictured is a Neanderthal museum exhibit

These were the original ‘cavemen’, historically thought to be dim-witted and brutish compared to modern humans.

In recent years though, and especially over the last decade, it has become increasingly apparent we’ve been selling Neanderthals short.

A growing body of evidence points to a more sophisticated and multi-talented kind of ‘caveman’ than anyone thought possible.

It now seems likely that Neanderthals buried their dead with the concept of an afterlife in mind.

Additionally, their diets and behaviour were surprisingly flexible.

They used body art such as pigments and beads, and they were the very first artists, with Neanderthal cave art (and symbolism) in Spain apparently predating the earliest modern human art by some 20,000 years.

The tools would have been particularly useful during colder periods when France was covered by steppe and tundra, meaning wood fuel sources were drastically reduced.

‘Producing smaller, shorter-term, task-specific fires would make their use of fuel much more efficient,’ Dr Sorensen said.

‘They could just let the fire die without worrying about not having fire in the future.’

In February, researchers found evidence of Neanderthal fire manufacture in southern Tuscany.

They were using it for foraging and hunting around 171,000 years ago, experts found.

The find was made by a team of researchers, including the Ministry of Heritage and Cultural Activities in Florence.


In February researchers found evidence of Neanderthal fire manufacture in southern Tuscany. They were using it for foraging and hunting around 171,000 years ago, experts found


Research suggests that our early cousins were wiped out by our ancestors around 40,000 years ago, although some survived at least 3,000 years longer than previously thought, in a small enclave in what is now southern Spain

Lead archaeologist Biancamaria Aranguren and colleagues dated the site to the late Middle Pleistocene, when early Neanderthals inhabited the region.

Most of the wooden implements were hewn from boxwood branches and likely used as digging sticks.

Such digging sticks have been known to be used for gathering plants and hunting small game.

The ends of the metre long (40 inch) sticks were fashioned into blunt points and had rounded handles useful for foraging.

Cut marks and striations, a series of linear marks, on the sticks bear witness to the manufacturing process.

Signs of superficial charring and microanalysis of blackened surfaces suggest the use of fire, in addition to stone tools, to scrape and shape the sticks.

Boxwood is among the hardiest and heaviest of European timbers.

It choice as a preferred material suggests the technical mastery of tool-making by early Neanderthals.

 

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