Who Started the Fire?



"The manufacture of stone tools and the manipulation of fire are the most important extrasomatic milestones in our early evolutionary trajectory," states Steven R. James at the beginning of his article entitled "Hominid Use of Fire in the Lower and Middle Pleistocene". Stone tools were the invention that gave hominids a new power over all other animals. They presented hominids with the ability to hunt and protect against other animals. Fire, on the other hand, provided these early hominids with a source of heat, protection, and a means of cooking. It is therefore understandable why paleoanthropologists have been avidly searching for evidence of when the first man-made stone tools and man-tamed fires came about. (James, 1)

It is widely agreed throughout the field that stone artifacts first appeared about 2 million years ago, between the Pliocene and Lower Pleistocene eras. (James 1) The first man-created fire, or at least tamed, has been a more difficult time period to estimate. The very earliest man-tamed fired had been estimated at 3 million years ago by a 1940 "fossil hunter" named Robert Dent. Dent made this estimate when he ran across blackened animal bones found near the remains of a 3 million year old hominid. Dent's estimate was quickly rejected though when the "burn marks" of the animal bone were found to be mineral stains. (McCrone, 20)

A second estimation for when man first tamed fired is between 1.6 and 1.4 million years ago. These dates were suggested after evidence was discovered at Koobi Fora and Chesowanja in Kenya. Archeologists at these sites discovered hominid bones as well as stone tools used by H. erectus. At Koobi Fora archeologists also found "ten lenses of orange earth about a half a metre wide and around 1.6 million years old." (McCrone, 20) At Chesowanja similar patches of dirt were found that date back to 1.4 years ago. When archeologists like Jack Harris of Rutgers University noticed the fires the natives built left similar orange spots he made the immediate connection. (McCrone, 20)

Though Harris' connection was highly speculative, he claimed that the idea man tamed fire around this time made perfect sense. Approximately this same time, H. erectus was also migrating to the highlands of Africa. In order to do this, Harris claimed, they would need the benefits of controlled fire. "At night, a fire would have helped keep other large carnivores at bay…But it also gets down to zero on the other side of the Rift (in reference to Africa's Great Rift Valley). You'd need a fire as to not freeze to death at that elevation." Harris believed that fire provided many other benefits to the migrating H. erectus that were necessary for survival, such as cooking, preserving meet, smoking out game, hardening wooden tolls and driving away insects. (McCone, 21)

Other archeologists have agreed that controlled fire was possible at Chesowanja, citing "refiring" test results on one clay sample that indicated that it had been fired at 400 degrees Celsius, roughly the temperature of a campfire. (James, 3) But an archeologist by the name of Issac, claims that the clay spots at Chesowanja are not enough evidence to prove that a controlled fire once existed there. He claims that incidental bush fires can cause similar markings. More evidence from the site would be needed to assure its validity. (James, 3)

In a 1995 article written by Michael Balter, he explained that Jean-Laurent Monnier of the University of Rennes found new evidence about when man first controlled fire. Monnier and his team used electron spin resonance (ESR), "a technique that allows dating of quartz that has been heated to high temperatures", to date burned sediment and its surrounding pebbles at the site of Menez-Dregan. (Balter) Monnier claimed that the site was 465,000 years old (+/- 65,000 years for error) and had more evidence to back this claim up then just blackened bones or orange spots of clay. First off, the material found at Menez-Dregan came from what seemed to be an ancient fireplace or hearth. Secondly, not only was there burned clay around the apparent hearth, there was a "strong concentration burned pebbles and charcoal…'the two essential elements of a purposeful fire.'"

But Monnier's claim has skeptics as well. Michael Tite of Oxford University points out that ESR dating has an "absolute limit" of about 500,000 years, dangerously close to Monnier's approximation of the fire. Monnier has therefore submitted his samples to the experts at the Center for Weak Radioactivity, and as far as we know, the results are still pending.(Balter)

So when do we know when man controlled the power of fire? Stephen R. James would state that a conservative guess would be between 300,000 and 250,000 years ago. James came to this conclusion after compiling the data of 34 different archeological sites worldwide (See table). The sites range from Africa and the Near East, to Europe and Asia. The site that contained the most evidence of a fire was St. Esteve-Janson in Europe. At this site archeologists found five different characteristics of fire: 1) unmistakable signs of hearths, 2) signs of charcoal, 3) fire cracked rock, 4) reddened clay area much like Chesowanja, and 5) ash around the hearths.

In his article James also talked about the most well documented campsite, Zhoukoudian in Asia, which had seven characteristics of a campsite. James called this site into question because it lacked any distinct characteristics of a hearth. (James, 6) His argument has gained support over the years by the archeological world since the time he made the claim in his 1989 article.

James' article though hardly came to a precise date of when man tamed fire. He left the argument quite open-ended, stating that "thorough and rigorous reexamination of the evidence is needed before we can make further claims about the role of fire in shaping our early development." (James, 11) The archeological world responded by putting a larger effort into reexamining rather than discovering, but little leeway has been made since his statement.


James, Steven R. "Hominid Use of Fire in the Lower and Middle Pleistocene: A Review of the Evidence" Current Anthropology, Volume 30, Number 1. February 1989. P. 2.


1) James, Steven R. "Hominid Use of Fire in the Lower and Middle Pleistocene: A Review of the Evidence" Current Anthropology, Volume 30, Number 1. February 1989. P. 2.

2) McCrone, John. "Fired Up," New Scientist 05/20/00, Vol. 166, Issue 2239, pp. 30-34.

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