We Didn’t Start the Fire (Until Much Later Than We Thought We Did)


Humans’ ability to control fire is among the most important technological advances in our evolutionary history. Research on Neanderthal cave sites is offering new insights on this old enigma. Maybe not as old as we think. (Sapiens)

Could Neanderthals start a fire?

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources, including today’s simple MapMaker Interactive map.

This is not an entirely inaccurate painting. The fire is near the cave mouth, and those fiery hominins are probably Homo sapiens, not Neanderthals. Painting by Jose Maria Velasco, courtesy Museo Nacional de Arte (Mexico) and Wikimedia. Public domain
Note that the fire is near the cave mouth, and those fiery hominins are probably Homo sapiens, not Neanderthals.
Painting by Jose Maria Velasco, courtesy Museo Nacional de Arte (Mexico) and Wikimedia. Public domain

Discussion Ideas

  • Most people think that our hominin ancestors gained the ability to make and control fire as early as 250,000 years ago. Why does setting this technological breakthrough so early make sense?


  • Paleontologists and archaeologists are now rethinking how to interpret the fire residue at ancient Paleolithic sites. Why?
    • The material at some sites, such as the Zhoukoudian cave system near Beijing, China, is not actually fire residue at all. Instead, the dark substances are natural sediments resembling charcoal and ash.
    • The truly ancient fire residues in Africa and elsewhere may not have come from intentionally created fires. They are more likely the result of naturally occurring wildfires that burned existing hominin sites.


  • How did fire make life easier in the Paleolithic?
    • It could keep you warm! Europe had a much colder environment 200,000 years ago. Ice sheets covered Scandinavia, and what we now think of as chilly “Scandinavian” climates blanketed southern Europe.
    • Fire made it possible for Neanderthals to cook food.
      • Meat: Cooked meat was easier to chew and had fewer parasites.
      • Fruits and veggies: Cooking allowed Neanderthals to expand their diets to include nutritious, starchy, fibrous plants. These plants, such as tubers and wild grasses, were difficult or impossible to digest uncooked. The toxic flesh or seeds of some raw fruits, such as cassava, were also made safe by cooking.
    • Fire made hunting easier by allowing hunters to trap animals with fire.
    • Burning areas for habitation or pathways made terrain less dangerous or forbidding.
    • Fire is able to strengthen stone tools such as spears and knives.
    • Pottery, every archaeologist’s best friend, was largely made possible with by the ability to “fire” clay, making it more durable.
    • Fire allowed Neanderthal or other hominin populations to be active at night.


  • The great Sapiens article outlines three major stages of hominins’ ability to make fire. What are these stages?
    • 1. ability to interact safely with naturally occurring fire. Early humans may have shared some characteristics with our chimpanzee relatives studied by Nat Geo explorer Jill Pruetz. “Pruetz has observed chimps monitoring the progress of a passing wildfire from a few meters away and then moving in to forage in the burned-out area.”
    • 2. ability to control naturally occurring fire. At this stage, early humans had the ability to capture, contain, and maintain fires—but not start them. For instance, early humans may have been able to isolate part of a natural wildfire, prevent it from spreading, and maintain it by adding fuel (usually wood or animal bones).
    • 3. ability to make fire. This key moment in human technology has been loosely affiliated with “campfires” or “hearths” at open-air sites and the mouths of caves. This evidence, however, could still only indicate mastery of the second stage of human control of fire.


The new research was conducted at the Pech-de-l’Azé I site in the Dordogne region of southwestern France.
The new research was conducted at the Pech-de-l’Azé I site in the Dordogne region of southwestern France.
  • Why do scientists think Neanderthals may not have had the ability to make fire after all? How did they interpret findings at the Pech-de-l’Aze cave site in France?
    • Pech-de-l’Aze shows a “striking abundance” of fires over thousands of years, but the use of fire is not consistent. Charcoal, ash, and burned tools are common in the deepest, oldest layers of the site, but entirely absent in the upper, newer layers. The pattern is odd because the abundance of fires coincide with the warmest parts of Paleolithic history, while the lack of fires correspond to the cold periods, when glaciers were descending across Europe. “This raised some really interesting questions: Why did Neanderthals stop using fire during cold periods, when the need for warmth would be most important?”
      • Ultimately, the authors say the evidence leaves only “one possible explanation: The Neanderthals at this time were still in the second stage of interacting with fire—they were collecting naturally occurring fire when it was available but did not yet have the technology to start fires themselves.”
      • Another hint was the placement of the “hearths.” All of the fire sites were situated at the mouths, or entrances, of the caves, not in the interior. Naturally occurring fires do not break out inside caves, but these well-protected shelters would have been a logical place to build fires if the cave-dwellers had the technology.



  • How does the new theory on how hominins learned to make fire differ from earlier, more commonly accepted theories?
    • The most popular theory is that “our ability to make fire began long before the Neanderthals, as a spark—a single technological discovery that spread widely and quickly and has remained essential to human life, in an uninterrupted line, to the present day.”
    • New research suggests that hominins’ use of fire came in fits and starts. “[I]t was not the result of a single accident or stroke of genius. It was, instead, a process that likely unfolded over hundreds of thousands of years. And for the Neanderthals, the process was punctuated by periods of intense cold in which, when the benefits of fire would have been greatest, they simply had to make do without it.”



Sapiens: Who Started the First Fire?

Nat Geo: Caveman Chemistry study guide

Nat Geo: Where is Pech de L’Aze? map

Nat Geo: Hominin History

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