Smashing rocks and rubbing sticks are the two most basic techniques to make fire, yet it is unclear which human species first mastered these incendiary procedures. To try and solve the riddle, researchers have analyzed the cognitive processes required for each method, determining that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens probably invented different modes of ignition.
Exactly when we first mastered the art of arson is something that is up for debate, with some evidence suggesting that ancient humans were using fire up to 2 million years ago, while other scholars believe the first controlled flames burned as recently as 200,000 years ago. And while the authors of the new study can’t pinpoint the first ever deliberate fire, they do propose some interesting hypotheses regarding the origins of the two main pyro-techniques.
The strike-a-light method, for instance, involves smashing a nodule of flint against a suitable rock such as iron pyrite to create a spark. Interestingly, while there is no archaeological or ethnographical evidence for the use of this method in Africa, early firemaking tools of this kind are found in Upper Palaeolithic sites across Europe.
Given that Neanderthals occupied Eurasia at this time, the study authors speculate that this extinct human species may have been the users of these ancient strike-a-light kits. Analyzing the intelligence required to master the technique, they explain that “the most complex phase of strike-a-light firemaking is understanding how to turn the spark into a flame by first nurturing it into an ember.”
Noting that our ancient cousins were probably bright enough to get their heads around this concept, the researchers conclude that “based on cognition, there is no reason to argue against Neanderthals being the inventors of the strike-a-light technology.”
Friction fires, on the other hand, are a little more tricky to master, and involve the use of two different types of wood to create a fire drill. To produce an ember using such a drill, a hardwood spindle must be tapered in order to fit into a notch cut into a flat softwood fireboard.
Thus, rather than simply using materials that are naturally present in the environment, this method requires the use of a manufactured toolkit with multiple interlocking parts. Given that most hunter-gatherer groups still use the fire-drill method today, the study authors propose that the technique is likely unique to Homo sapiens.
Unfortunately, ancient fire drill kits are absent from the archaeological record because wood doesn’t tend to survive over long periods. However, the fact that strike-a-light kits are not found in Africa, combined with the presence of other highly complex ancient tools, suggests that the first modern humans to emerge on the continent probably used fire drills to generate fires.
“This firemaking technology may have been invented by different Homo sapiens groups roaming the African savanna before populating the rest of the globe, where fire-drills remain the most-used hunter-gatherer firemaking technique,” they write.
Overall, then, it seems likely that Eurasian Neanderthals created fire by smashing rocks together, while modern humans in Africa invented the more sophisticated fire drill.
The study is published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.