Prehistoric humans in Europe might have been sitting round campfires built to toast snacks as early as 250,000 years ago – 50,000 years earlier than originally thought, researchers have suggested.
Human species have a long association with fire, with some sites suggesting its controlled use dates back more than 700,000 years in Africa and the Middle East and at least 400,000 years in Europe.
Now experts say they have found the earliest evidence in Europe for fires that could have been made for hanging out and heating food.
“This is the oldest evidence of human-controlled fire meant for cooking and social interaction,” said Dr Clayton Magill, an assistant professor at Heriot-Watt University and an author of the study.
Magill noted that prior to the new study, other evidence had suggested there were “organised” fires in Europe by 200,000 years ago, meaning there were signs they were laid out deliberately and used for particular purposes.
“We’ve now pushed that date back 50,000 years,” he said.
“That’s not to say that other locations don’t have that. However, we haven’t been able to show it systematically or robustly until now,” he added.
Writing in the journal Scientific Reports, Magill and colleagues in Spain report how they studied the Valdocarros II site, east of Madrid.
The team say that not only did the site contain multiple hearths, but that chemical analyses of substances within them suggested the fires burned at temperatures between about 280C and 350C.
“That’s the sweet spot not for dedicated heating, or for persistently scaring animals, but rather for cooking,” said Magill.
The team also found evidence of degradation products from pine trees and fungus, suggesting rotten pine wood had been burned.
That, said Magill, was notable, because while found in the surrounding area, pine trees were not abundant locally to the site, suggesting the wood may have been deliberately collected.
“If we [look at] a lot of Indigenous peoples in the modern world, rotting wood is specifically sought out because it’s easier to burn at the sweet spot for temperatures for cooking,” he said.
It is unclear which species of early human might have used the fires, and traces of food have not been recovered from the hearths. However, the team are now analysing stone tools found near the hearths that show traces of animal fats and plants, as well as charred materials.
“We’re starting to see that these fires had a purpose in addition to being controlled or in a central location,” said Magill, adding that there was a good likelihood they were used to heat food.
“We can take another step forward and say if we’re cooking food in a controlled fire environment, that almost certainly means that we have a social structure and language,” he said, noting the site also showed evidence that large animals were butchered – an activity that would have required cooperation.
Prof Robert Hosfield of the University of Reading, who was not involved in the work, said the large size of one of the hearths suggested it might have been used for defence against predators.
He also noted that fire allowed the day to be extended, “which may have been especially important in seasons of shorter days at the higher latitudes”.
Prof John Gowlettof the University of Liverpool said the study was not the earliest evidence of social activity around fire in Europe, but that the work gave a “brilliant window” into early human activities. “Here at 245,000 [years ago] we can see that humans were using multiple small hearths, rather than having one big one, perhaps a sign that they could make fire at will,” he said.