Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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30-Apr-2004

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The oldest known campfires?



Excavation site at Gesher Benot Ya'aqov, Israel. Image Science.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

While scientists don't have lyrics to any campfire songs, the burned seeds, wood, and flint they discovered in Israel could be the world's oldest known remains from fires controlled by humans.

Scientists analyzed these remnants and describe how and why they appear to be the leftovers from human-controlled-fires that burned nearly 790,000 years ago.



Humans seem to have burned six types of wood, including olive, wild barley and wild grape at the archeological site in Israel. Image courtesy of NASA/MSFC.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

Archaeological research suggests that people have been using fire for a very long time, but the question of when humans learned to control fire has no clear answer. If the seeds, wood and flint that Naama Goren-Inbar and colleagues discovered really are from fires controlled by humans, and not from wildfires, then these burned bits would be the oldest evidence of humans controlling fire.

The scientists found the pieces of burned flint in clusters. They also found unburned flint distributed fairly evenly throughout the site. These groupings of burned flint could mark the locations where people had regular fires and maybe even primitive fireplaces, according to the researchers.

Humans seem to have burned six types of wood, including olive, wild barley and wild grape at the archeological site in Israel called "Gesher Benot Ya'aqov." The scientists from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel and Bar-llan University in Ramat-Gan, Israel describe this place as a crossroads site between Africa, Europe and Asia.



Burned grain of goatgrass from almost 790,000 years ago. Image courtesy of Naama Goren-Inbar.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

If these fires were really controlled and not wild, then who was controlling them? The proposed "fire users" were not modern humans. They may have been any of three different species that lived before modern humans: "Homo erectus," "Homo ergaster" or "archaic Homo sapiens," according to Naama Goren-Inbar and colleagues.

The domestication of fire led to dramatic changes in many areas of human behavior from diet to defense and social interaction. The scientists describe their research in the 30 April 2004 issue of the journal Science.

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