The early humans of Europe had been making use of fire at least 250,000 years ago – 50,000 years earlier than previously believed, a study has found.
The findings of this study were published in the peer-reviewed academic journal Science Reports.
The revelations uncovered by this research could rewrite our understanding of the history of human evolution as we know it.
Light my fire: The importance of fire in human history
The use of fire is one of the most important innovations in human history, and in fact, is considered a huge turning point that allowed humanity to achieve global dominance.
Homo sapiens, from the start, had achieved through evolution a few key traits that them stand out in their ecosystem. This included their high intelligence and opposable thumbs; the ability to run for long distances without stopping; and the ability to throw projectiles very far and fast, turning a rock into a deadly weapon.
But it was fire that saw humanity become able to spread. It allowed mankind to move out of Africa and into colder climates, with the fire helping keep them warm. The use of fire was also a defensive tool, helping keep would-be predators at bay. It also let humans cook their food, increasing calorie count and helping kill germs that can fester in raw meat.
The earliest known use of controlled fire was found in Africa over a million years ago. Outside of the African continent, the earliest known use of controlled fire was found in Israel's Gesher Benot Ya'aqov site, which dates back 790,000 years ago.
But for Europe, previous evidence suggests that fire was first used 200,000 years ago.
However, that may have changed.
The researchers behind the study investigated the Valdocarros II site in Spain, which is known to have a number of ancient archaeological relics from hundreds of thousands of years ago.
Here, the scientists were able to find evidence that not only were things deliberately being burnt but they were done so in an organized way, based on how the remains from the fires were organized.
What does this mean?
According to the study, the remnants of the fire were arranged as if they were encircling something. This could mean it was used as a way to keep animals at bay or to cook food.
What makes this study stand out, though was the methodology.
Normally, researchers analyze early uses of fire by trying to study the remains in ancient hearths. These archaeological finds can contain charcoal or signs of burning and are direct evidence of human-controlled fire.
This study, however, chose a different route: Geochemistry, which means studying the Earth by analyzing the chemicals that make up its rocks and minerals.
This method allows for the site to be studied using chemical analysis, rather than just studying the remnants themselves.
This presents some advantages. Most notably, some of this evidence may have lasted longer, surviving the passage of time rather than eroding.
However, further research is needed. By analyzing some of the tools found near these ancient hearths, the scientists can hopefully be able to tell how they were used in relation to the fire. That, too, could grant further insight into the distant past.