Discovery Of Prehistoric Hearth In Israel's Qesem Cave Suggests Human Culture May Have Begun 300,000 Years Ago

By Ajit Jha on January 28, 2014 9:52 AM EST

The Qesem Cave Excavation
In this photo of the Qesem Cave during excavation, a blue arrow points to the location of the newly-discovered hearth. (Photo: Weizmann Institute of Science)

For archaeologists, control and use of fire is intricately woven with the signs of the development of pre-historic human cultures. A team of Israeli scientists have stumbled upon evidence of the use of fire about 300,000 years ago in the Qesem Cave in the present day region of Rosh Ha'ayin. The new discovery will go a long way in addressing the question of the first use of fire for human needs leading to the rise of human culture. The findings are published in the journal Archaeological Science.

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The research team from Tel Aviv University was headed by Dr. Avi Gopher and Dr. Ran Barkai along with Dr. Ruth Shahack-Gross of the Kimmel Center for Archeological Science at the Weizmann Institute. After finding a thick deposit of wood ash in the center of the cave, Shahack-Gross and her colleagues used infrared spectroscopy to examine it more closely. They took a lab-hardened cubic chunk of sediment and cut it into extremely thin slices — thin enough to be observed under a microscope. The hope was that looking at it under a microscope could reveal the exact composition of the material under observation and also the way it was formed. They found small pieces of bone and soil mixed in with the ash, and discovered that it had been heated to high temperatures, indicating that the area had actually been a large hearth.   

The researchers carefully studied the remains in and around hearth and in the cave, and concluded that the organization of space in different parts of the cave indicated a kind of social order typically associated with modern humans. For example, the presence of a large number of flint tools found around the hearth area showed that they were used for cutting meat. Some flint tools with a different design were also found some distance away suggesting their use for other activities. A large number of burnt animal bones in and around the cave indicated that fire was repeatedly used to cook meat.

The findings, according to Shahack-Gross, reveal the heights of social and cognitive developments among hominids about 300,000 years back in time. "These findings help us to fix an important turning point in the development of human culture, 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," Shahack-Gross said in a press release.

In the opinion of the researchers, new forms of culture and a new human species may have begun well about 400,000 years ago as evident from these findings including signs of substantial changes in human biology and behavior.  

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