Into the cold: The adaptive role of pyrotechnology among the earliest modern humans in Europe, ca. 45,000–20,000 years ago
The routine assumption that Upper Palaeolithic early modern humans in Europe were regular fire users who produced fire at will has never been tested against the archaeological record. Utilizing literature, database and microwear analytical approaches, this project seeks to establish the role and forms of pyrotechnology in modern human adaptations to Ice Age middle and northern latitudes.
- 2019 - 2023
- Andrew Sorensen
- Veni Innovational Research Incentives Scheme postdoctoral grant, Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO)
Our personal relationship with fire has become greatly diminished in the modern era compared to our prehistoric ancestors. Yet fire remains the basis for the vast majority of our technology and comforts, despite being largely hidden away. It is for this reason that the development of fire as an adaptive tool by humans is of such interest to us all. Determining when and how fire entered our technological repertoire is key to understanding who we are as a species, and as a society.
Around 45,000 years ago, our modern human ancestors made their way out of Africa into a world very different from that they were leaving behind. To be successful in this new, colder European environment, it is often assumed that these warm-adapted Upper Palaeolithic Homo sapiens must have possessed the ability to make fire.
It is then perhaps surprising that artefactual evidence for fire making among the earliest groups of modern humans inhabiting Europe is virtually nonexistent, despite abundant evidence that they were using fire regularly.
By contrast, during my NWO-funded PhD project “Beyond Prometheus”, dozens of probable Neandertal fire-making tools from France dating to around 50,000 years ago were identified, making these the earliest evidence for regular fire production by any human group. This means that Neandertal fire-making tools currently outnumber by far those known from early Upper Palaeolithic contexts.
This is perhaps a bit strange considering modern humans frequently receive the benefit of the doubt regarding their abilities to habitually use and produce fire, while the burden of proof for Neandertals is much higher, with some researchers still arguing that Neandertals neither made fire nor used it on a regular basis. My project tests these long-standing assumptions from various angles that, together, will help give a much clearer picture of how great a force fire was in the modern human adaption to the novel and altogether demanding landscape that was Europe during the Last Glacial period.
Why Leiden University?
The Faculty of Archaeology at Leiden is the natural choice for carrying out this project. The publishing record of the Human Origins Group on Palaeolithic fire use is arguably among the strongest in the world, with numerous researchers confronting various aspects of this particular topic. I also work closely with the Material Studies Group, whose Laboratory for Artefact Studies provides top-notch research facilities for experimental archaeology and microwear and residue analyses.
One aspect of this study focuses on compiling a comprehensive database of early Upper Palaeolithic archaeological sites that exhibit various lines of evidence indicating fire had been used on-site. Such a database, which is sorely lacking for this period, will be used to look for diachronic and regional patterns in how and to what degree these peoples used fire. Ultimately, I hope to determine what differences in fire use existed between early modern human groups and the Neandertals that preceded them.
The second main objective of this project is to address the aforementioned lack of early Upper Palaeolithic fire-making tools which, by all accounts, should be more prevalent if modern humans were truly obligate fire users, as is often assumed. Using the microwear analytical methods developed and successfully employed during my PhD, I am conducting systematic analyses of strategically chosen early Upper Palaeolithic stone artefact assemblages to search for flint ‘strike-a-light’ tools exhibiting use damage indicative of forceful contact with pyrite for the production of fire.
This project will hopefully lead to a greater understanding of the roles fire use and fire making played in the development of the modern human niche, thereby providing the stepping stones needed to move away from implicit assumptions towards solid data of relevance for these ‘burning’ archaeological questions.