Wil Roebroeks

Wil Roebroeks

Wil Roebroeks is Professor of Palaeolithic Archaeology at Leiden University and an expert in the field of the archaeology of early hominins, with a focus on Neanderthal studies. He has published widely on various aspects of the behaviour of extinct hominins. , including their subsistence strategies, lithic technology and the environmental settings of their presence and absence in Eurasia. Roebroeks has conducted fieldwork in the Netherlands, in England , France, northeastern Russia and Germany . He is the Vice-President of the European Society for the Study of Human Evolution (ESHE).

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The deep history of fire usage

The use of fire is a key characteristic of the human way of living, one that separates us from all other animals, including the great apes: we are completely dependent on fire for the preparation of our food, for keeping warm, for means of transport and for the production of most of the objects surrounding our everyday lives. Surprisingly, scientists have little idea when in the course of our human evolution we started using fire, and what biological and social effects fire may have had on our evolution. Why is that the case, and how can we make progress in this field?

The deep history of fire usage

The use of fire is a key characteristic of the human way of living, one that separates us from all other animals, including the great apes: we humans are pyrophilic primates, completely dependent on fire for the preparation of our food, for keeping warm, for means of transport and for the production of most of the objects surrounding our everyday lives. Surprisingly, scientists have little idea when in the course of our human evolution we started using fire, and what biological and social effects fire had on prehistoric humans, more specifically how the introduction of cooked foods impacted our diets and health and the way we humans interact with each other.The wide range of beneficial effects of fire has been elaborated by especially Richard Wrangham and colleagues: cooking softens food and increases digestibility, enabling reductions in masticatory and gastro-intestinal anatomy. Wrangham and colleagues have highlighted anatomical changes around the emergence of Homo erectus as possible adaptations to fire use, already around two million years ago, but there exists no indisputable archaeological evidence for fire use at such an early age. However, absence of evidence for fire use is not evidence of its absence. Traces of fire use by mobile hunter-gatherers are in general very ephemeral, as their small camp fires usually produce only small amounts of ash and charcoal, while subsequent weathering of these traces immediately after abandonment of the site  and during its subsequent geological history is bound to destroy these marginal traces, creating a notoriously incomplete archaeological record. Given these visibility issues  and the wide range of purposes for which fire may have been used both at campsites and in the wider landscape, we have to envisage that archaeologists simply have not picked up unambiguous traces of the the early stages of hominin fire usage yet.

Regardless, the archaeological record from both Europe and the Near East and a range of depositional contexts do consistently document a very clear change in the archaeological fire signal around 350,000 years ago, i.e. in the middle part of the Middle Pleistocene, a time period in which heated lithics, heated bones and charcoal become regular finds at Palaeolithic sites. This very striking Middle Pleistocene change in the archaeological fire signal has been interpreted as indicative of hominin (early Neandertals and their contemporaries) control of fire, including its production “at will”. From around that time period onward, the use of fire would have become an integral part of the hominin technological repertoire, including for food preparation: i.e., 1,5 million years later than in the longer chronology advocated by Wrangham and colleagues. The presentation focuses on the interesting(and potentially: informative) mismatch between the (biology based) ‘long chronology’ for fire usage and the significantly younger archaeological signal and discusses ways to adress this “science friction”.


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