Just when our ancestors began lighting their own fires rather than letting nature do it is one of archaeology's burning questions.
In 2004, Israeli archaeologists at the ancient hominid site of Gesher Benot Ya'aqov (GBY) in Israel, first occupied 790,000 years ago, convinced many experts that hominids living there had mastered fire, pushing back previously accepted dates by a half-million years. Now a member of that team has evidence that fire was controlled during the entire 100,000-year occupation of GBY.
Nira Alperson-Afil of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem analyzed the distribution of burned and unburned pieces of flint from eight occupational levels, looking for evidence of "phantom hearths": fireplaces obliterated by time but whose locations are indicated by debitage from the toolmakers who gathered around them.Although only about 2% of the flint at the site is burned, Alperson-Afil found clusters where at least half the flint was burnt--revealed by pinhead-sized bubbles called "potlidding"--in each of the eight levels, she reports online this month in Quaternary Science Reviews.
The GBY hominids made tools belonging to the Acheulian cultural tradition, which arose in Africa about 1.6 million years ago. Ralph Rowlett, a prehistorian at the University of Missouri, Columbia, says that the study offers persuasive evidence that not only tools but mastery of fire was probably part of the "cultural package" of hominids who settled in the Near East after migrating from Africa.