A team of archeologists from Leiden University, the Netherlands, have found the first "direct artefactual evidence" to suggest early Homo sapiens weren't the first hominin to master the art of fire. Neanderthals may have been lighting up 50,000 years ago, according to a study recently published in Scientific Reports, though not everybody is convinced.
The subject of fire is a controversial one in anthropological circles. It is well-known that hominins of various kinds have been able to use and, to some extent, control fire for more than 1 million years – way before early humans or even Neanderthals were in the picture. However, as far as we know, Homo sapiens were the first hominin to learn how to start a fire from scratch. The first clear evidence we have of them doing so dates back to the Iron Age.
Andrew Sorensen, a PhD researcher and leader of the study, believes there are previously ignored clues in paleolithic tools that indicate Neanderthals learned to light fire thousands of years before our early ancestors. These tools are hand axes 10-13 centimeters (4-5 inches) long that have been carved so that they look like teardrops. Archeologists have found many of these scattered around known Neanderthal hangouts. (Apparently, they were also litterbugs.)
The tools were mostly used for cutting things (think wood, meat, hides, and other tools). But, as Sorensen notes, the tools are made from flint, which means they could have served another purpose – starting fires. And so his team began experiments striking pyrite (more commonly known as fool's gold) against the hand axes over and over and over again until it let off a spark.
While this shows that it is possible to use Neanderthal tools for fire-making, it doesn't prove Neanderthals were using them to make fire.
As Sorensen writes, striking pyrite leaves tell-tale marks on the tools. According to the study, 26 surfaces from 20 hand axes obtained from sites in France contain "probably or possible" markings to demonstrate fire-starting. These signs of wear and tear appear in clusters and run in parallel.
“When you zoom in at the micro scale, you see this mineral polish and also a series of scratches in the surface,” Sorensen told the Washington Post. This, he argues, strongly indicates that they were made deliberately.
Earlier this year, deliberately charred wooden tools were discovered in Tuscany, Italy. This in itself doesn't prove the Neanderthals were able to make fire, but it does suggest they were good at manipulating it for their own advantage. Again, these scratchings do not prove Neanderthals were able to make fire, but it makes it a little bit more likely that they did.
Next steps may involve using RAMAN spectroscopy to see if they can find any chemical evidence of fire-making.