That is what Francesco Berna and colleagues argue in a new paper:
F. Berna et al., Microstratigraphic evidence of in situ fire in the Acheulean strata of Wonderwerk Cave, Northern Cape province, South Africa. PNAS 2012. Open access.
The findings are dated to at least one million years ago and correspond to the Acheulean period, characterized by bifacial axes and generally attributed to Homo erectus or H. ergaster.
|Partly charred bone from Wonderwerk|
As the authors explain, previous claims of fire use in this period in East Africa, the Levant or China have been plagued with controversy. In most cases the controversy stems from the relatively low resolution of the research and the possibility of the fires being natural occurrences. In the case of Zhoukoudian, near Beijing, what was once claimed as product of fire ended being sedimentary deposits.
This research actually continues the findings of Peter B. Beaumont last year, who claimed (JSTOR, pay-per-view) that the South African cave hosted evidence of fire dated to c. 1.7 Ma.
The evidence included charred vegetal remains and animal bones, these last not completely calcinated, meaning that combustion was under 700 °C. Also remains of ironstone brought intently to the cave and worked in situ (main material of artifacts) show signs of manipulation under heat above 500 °C.
Apparently the fires were produced almost exclusively with light materials such as dry grasses and leaves. While it is not impossible that they might have used wood and then the evidence got lost, the data from bones indicates combustion under 700 °C, what is compatible with fire produced with lighter materials exclusively.
See also: Boston University's site, BU Today.
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