Earliest proof of ancient Europeans using fire to cook has just been discovered

The site also exhibited indications of large animal butchering— a task that would have required a social structure.
Sade Agard
Conceptual image of early humans using fire.
Conceptual image of early humans using fire.


Scientists may have just found the earliest evidence in Europe for fires used for socializing and cooking food, according to a new study published in Nature on May 18. 

The research, which was carried out at Spain's Valdocarros II site— one of the largest Acheulean sites in Europe— indicates that early humans in Europe could have been manipulating fire to cook their meals as early as 250,000 years ago. This discovery pushes back the timeline by 50,000 years compared to previous estimations.

When did Europeans start cooking food with fire?

"This is the oldest evidence of human-controlled fire meant for cooking and social interaction," said author Dr. Clayton Magill, an assistant professor at Heriot-Watt University, in an article by The Guardian.

"That's not to say that other locations don't have that. However, we haven't been able to show it systematically or robustly until now," he explained. 

According to the team, the site not only had several hearths but chemical examinations of the substances found within them indicated that the fires burned at temperatures ranging from approximately 280°C to 350°C.

Earliest proof of ancient Europeans using fire to cook has just been discovered
Photos taken during fieldwork of the individual hearths.

"That's the sweet spot not for dedicated heating or for persistently scaring animals, but rather for cooking," argued Magill.

The researchers also discovered signs of degradation, products from pine trees and fungus, indicating that decaying pine wood had been used as fuel for the fires. This finding is significant because pine trees were not plentiful near the site. Their presence could be indicative of the wood being intentionally gathered and brought to the site.

"If we [look at] a lot of Indigenous peoples in the modern world, rotting wood is specifically sought out because it's easier to burn at the sweet spot for temperatures for cooking," he said.

Magill proposed that we can make further progress by asserting that if we are cooking food within a controlled fire setting, it strongly implies the existence of a social structure and language. He pointed out that the site also exhibited indications of large animal butchering, a task that would have necessitated collaboration.

According to Professor John Gowlett from the University of Liverpool, while the study does not provide the earliest evidence of social activity around a fire in Europe, it offers valuable insights into early human behaviors. He described it as a "brilliant window" that sheds light on their activities. 

Gowlett also emphasized that the findings indicate that humans used multiple small hearths around 245,000 years ago, suggesting their ability to control fire and ignite it at their convenience rather than relying on a single large hearth.

It is not yet clear what species of early humans used the fires. 

The complete study was published in Nature on May 18 and can be found here.

Study abstract:

Among the outstanding questions about the emergence of human-controlled fire is the systematic recurrence between the geochemical remains of fire and its preservation in the archaeological record, as the use of fire is considered a technological landmark, especially for its importance in food cooking, defensive strategies, and heating. Here we report fossil lipid biomarkers associated with incomplete combustion of organic matter at the Valdocarros II site, one of the largest European Acheulean sites in Spain dated to marine isotopic stage (MIS) 8/7 (~ 245 kya) allowing a multiproxy analysis of human-controlled fire use. Our results reveal isolated cases of highly concentrated and diverse polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and alkylated PAHs (APAHs), along with diagnostic conifer-derived triterpenoids in two hearth-like archaeological structures. The presence of combustion byproducts suggests the presence of anthropogenic (controlled) fires at Valdocarros—one of the oldest evidence of fire use in Europe-in association with Acheulean tools and bones. Hominins possibly used fire for two main activities, as a means of defense against predators and cooking. Our results help to better delineate major gaps in our current knowledge of human-controlled fire in the context of the Middle-Pleistocene in Europe and suggest that human ancestors were able to control fire before at least 250 kya.

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