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The complexities of interpreting Neandertal fire use signals

Thursday 1 December 2016
Van Steenis
Einsteinweg 2
2333 CC Leiden

‘Timeless’ implications for behaviour and cognition among Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers

This talk provides a broad overview of my PhD research to-date regarding Neandertal fire use practices and how they manifest in the archaeological record. I will primarily focus on the direct and indirect influence climate may have had not only on how Neandertals used fire, but also if or when any particular fire use event would preserve for posterity. The resultant variability in relative fire signals observed between different layers, different sites and different climatic periods has profound implications for how we interpret the record. This is especially true regarding whether or not one believes Neandertals had the ability to artificially produce fire from scratch using tools.

I explore this possibility by employing use-wear analytical techniques to identify macroscopic and microscopic traces of stone-on-stone percussion, specifically between flint tools (i.e., strike-a-lights) and fragments of pyrite that could indicate their past use as fire making equipment. I will report on the current findings of these analyses and how they might influence our views of Neandertal cognitive abilities. Many of the ideas and concepts to be discussed are not necessarily unique to the European Middle Palaeolithic and can be more broadly applied to archaeological fire research in general, especially within hunter-gatherer contexts.

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