Fire and Human Origins
Correctly interpreting the patterns of fire evidence in the archaeological record will illuminate the origin of human fire use.
- Wil Roebroeks
Benefits of fire
The control of fire is one of the most important cultural innovations in the history of humankind and shaped our species, both physically and culturally, into what we are today. Fire not only expanded the variety and quality of edible foods through cooking, afforded protection against cold, enabling range expansion into more northerly latitudes, added comfort and security by warding off predators and harmful insects, but also provided a focal point for our social lives. While the benefits fire conferred to early humans are clear, the timing of the various stages of its mastery remains contentious, with hypotheses for the origins of fire use ranging between two million and forty thousand years ago. At the heart of the debate lies the problem of correctly interpreting the patterns of fire evidence in the archaeological record.
In our group we tackle this burning issue from various angles. Research topics currently being pursued include a PhD project on Neandertal fire production (by Andrew Sorensen), research on ‘fire-free’ cultural and biological adaptations to the colonisation of higher latitudes (by dr. Kathy MacDonald), projects on ethnographic hunter-gatherer off-site fire use (Scherjon et al. 2015) and a genetic study of the defence capacity against fire-related toxins in ancient hominins ( Aarts et al., submitted). Additionally, studies into the effect of heat and diagenesis on organic materials are being pursued (e.g. by Freek Braadbaart and Femke Reidsma). We are planning the in-lab micro-excavation of a 25,000 year old fire place from France, excavated by PI Marie Soressi, and to be transported to Leiden soon. Check these pages to follow online the progress of the dissection of that fireplace!