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Earliest man made fire discovered in Israel

Major scientific discovery could shed new light on an important stage of human evolution
Maariv News Service

More than three-quarters of a million years ago, early humans, most likely Homo Erectus, gathered around a campfire they made and controlled, near an ancient lake in what is now Israel, making tools and perhaps cooking food. This is by far the earliest evidence yet found of the use of fire in Europe or Asia.

Researchers have found evidence that these early people hunted and processed meat and used fire at a site called Gesher Benot Ya'akov, near the banks of the Jordan, in what is now known as the Great Rift Valley. Developing the ability to use fire "surely led to dramatic changes in their behavior connected with diet, defense and social interaction," said lead researcher Naama Goren-Inbar of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Occupation of the site has been dated at about 790,000 years ago, according to the research team. Their findings are reported in Friday's issue of the journal Science.

The remains of burned wood indicate the possibility of a hearth, the researchers said, and there were tiny flint pieces, probably chipped off in the process of making tools. There also is evidence of consumption of meat, including bones with cut marks and breakage patterns indicating the extraction of marrow. The evidence indicates the early humans ate a variety of animals including horses, deer, rhino, hippo and birds, Goren-Inbar said. Several types of wood were burned at the site, including willow, poplar, ash and wild olive. There also was evidence of oats, wild grapevine, bedstraw, barley and several types of grass.

The find "enlarges the scope of our understanding of the behavioral patterns of the early humans," Goren-Inbar said. "It allows us to understand that these hominids were capable of coping with dangers, food, acquire warmth and later on in the history of mankind enabled some very meaningful technological inventions."

The earliest previous sites in Europe and Asia that show evidence of human use of fire have been dated at about 500,000 years ago. Thus, the new finding pushes back the earliest evidence for control of fire by residents of Asia or Europe by more than a quarter-million years. There are sites in southern and eastern Africa associating fire with early humans more than 1 million years ago , however researchers do not agree as to whether the beings associated with the fire created it, or merely made use of naturally occurring fire they came across, what could be termed pyro-scavenging.

Anthropologist Paola Villa of the University of Colorado, who was not part of the research team, called new the report an important find. "The evidence presented in this paper is very convincing because it is based on a combination of different kinds of data," she said. "Supportive evidence for the presence of fireplaces is also provided. The authors have considered all possible alternative explanations," she said. "This is an important find that will encourage European archaeologists to take a closer look at their data," Villa added. The Israeli site is at a crossroads for movement between Africa, Asia and Europe and use of fire could have helped spur the colonization of the colder climate of Europe, which began about 800,000 years ago.

It is unclear who these early people were. The paper notes that residents of this site have been assumed to be the now extinct Homo Erectus or Homo Ergaster (considered by many researchers to be a sub species of Homo Erectus), but may also have been an archaic version of modern humans, Homo Sapiens, or a species of Hominid from which Homo Neanderthalis, and perhaps also homo Sapiens evolved.

Naama Goren-Inbar said that further excavations could perhaps unearth remains of the beings who made the fire. Such a find could shed much light on one of evolution’s unsolved mysteries, where, how and when did Home Erectus or one of the sub species associated with him evolve into a more advanced hominid that ended up becoming ourselves.

Northern Israel has provided several important anthropological, archeological and paleethnological finds, including skeletal remains of Homo Neanderthalis and Homo Erectus. The fact that Israel is in the heart of the natural land bridge linking Africa, where human evolution started, to Europe and Asia, means that there is a strong possibility that further important finds could be made in the area.