Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Fire use in human evolution: A genetic approach

Are traces of fire use detectable in ancient hominin genomes?

2013 - 2018
Jac Aarts
Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences

Departments of Molecular Biology and Bioinformatics of Wageningen University

Short abstract

Fire use is hypothesised to leave traces in the human genome, the analysis of which could shed light on the chronology of fire use by ancient hominins, such as Neanderthals.

Social relevance      

This project aims to contribute to answering the question when during evolution humans learned to master the making and regular use of fire. The insight gained in the evolution of biological adaptations to the use of fire within the human lineage might have impact on our understanding of related health issues of present-day humans.

Scientific relevance

The art of making and using fire was “probably the greatest [discovery] excepting language, ever made by man”, according to Charles Darwin. By many accounts habitual fire use was one of the driving forces in human evolution. The various benefits of the habitual usage of fire, including the nutritional advantages of cooked versus raw food are widely known. That exposure to smoke and the heating of food items (especially meat) may have negative health consequences has gained less attention. Selection pressure towards increased resistance against these negative factors is anticipated when the use of fire became a common practice, leading to genetic adaptation. This project will look for evidence of such adaptation in the genomes of ancient hominins as compared to great apes, such as chimpanzees, that serve as a negative control.

Why Leiden University?

This project can build on the extensive knowledge and expertise already available in the Human Origins Group of Leiden University regarding the evidence and the context of fire in the archaeological record.


This project may lead to follow-up and complementary studies of other genetic adaptations that may have complemented the ability to make and use fire and may have contributed to the ability to migrate into colder climate zones of northern Europe.

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