Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

‘Fire-free’ survival strategies for the early occupants of north-west Europe

In Europe, archaeological traces of fire become more frequent between 300,000 and 400,000 years ago; but could the earliest occupants have survived without fire for at least half a million years before this? How could the early occupants of Europe have kept warm and processed meat without fire?

Katharine MacDonald

Chronologies for the use of fire diverge widely. In Europe, archaeological traces of anthropogenic fire become increasingly frequent from about 350 kya (Roebroeks and Villa, 2011, PNAS). However, during the preceding 700,000 years of hominin occupation traces of fire are scarce and ambiguous. This raises questions about how hominins could have survived in Europe without fire; what other strategies could they have used for preparing uncooked fat and meat, for maintaining warmth during the ice-age winter and avoiding predators?

The aim of this ongoing project is to outline plausible fire-free strategies for staying warm and processing food in Lower Palaeolithic Europe, if any, as well as the trade-offs involved in these strategies. The starting point will be biological, behavioural and cultural strategies employed by contemporary humans and other mammals. For example, the ethnographic literature particularly from the subarctic region describes multiple methods for preparing and preserving raw meat and fish without using fire. A longer-term goal is to identify approaches to testing whether such plausible strategies were indeed used in the past. This project will contribute to understanding the chronology of fire use and the niche of the earliest occupants of Europe.



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