New emerging evidence discovered in South Africa nullifies prior suggestions indicating that homo sapiens was the first species to use fire.
Analysis of fossil remains unearthed from the Rising Star Cave system in South Africa indicates that Homo naledi, an extinct species of hominid, actually built fires in the underground chambers.
The same Dinaledi underground chamber has now been found to have housed controlled fires, thought to be lit and fed by the ancient hominins.
The discovery was announced in December 2022 at a lecture given by National Geographic Explorer-at-Large Professor Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg at the Carnegie Institution of Science in Washington.
“We are fairly confident to formulate the hypothesis that this small-brained hominid, Homo naledi, that existed at the same time we believe Homo sapiens were sharing parts of Africa, was using fire for a variety of purposes,” he said.
However, the details of this amazing discovery on an extinct species of hominid that lived two to three hundred thousand years ago have not yet been peer-reviewed.
Homo naledi remains were first discovered in 2013
The research which has now yielded new evidence is based on remains of Homo naledi that were first discovered in 2013 by Berger and his team at the Rising Star Cave system near Johannesburg, South Africa.
Therefore, subsequent excavations have since unearthed fossils from more than a dozen individuals—both male and female, juvenile and adult—as well as evidence of ritualistic burial practices.
However, some remains of certain individuals appear to have been washed and deliberately placed in position.
Earlier in 2022, Berger said that after entering the caves himself for the first time, he noticed evidence of soot on the surfaces of the walls. The caves, however, are hundreds of meters deep in a claustrophobically tight network of passages.
He said, “As I looked up and stared at the roof, I began to realize that the roof was not a pure calcium carbonate. The roof above my head was greyed above fresh flowstone. There were blackened areas across the wall.”
“There were soot particles across the whole of the surface,” he added. “The entire roof of the chamber where we have spent the last seven years working is burnt and blackened.”
Investigation leading to evidence of fire use by the species
Upon conducting further investigation of the cave’s system, researchers then uncovered several other caves and passages with chunks of burnt wood and charred animal bones.
Berger said, “Fire is not hard to find. It’s everywhere within this system.”
He added that “everywhere there’s a complex juncture, they built fire. Every adjacent cave system to the chambers where we believe they were disposing of the dead, they built fires and cooked animals.”
“And in the chamber where we believe they were disposing of the dead, they built fire but didn’t cook animals,” he explained. “That’s extraordinary,” he remarked, adding that there may be more to discover.
Following the conference, Berger tweeted: “So. I have a terrible, shameful admission. The fire. It’s not the big discovery I’ve been tweeting about. There’s a bigger one. Actually, there are three bigger than fire coming. Sorry.”
Berger said, “This is the most extraordinary period of exploration and discovery, and it’s going to continue.”
“The next generation don’t [sic] have a fear of exploration,” he said. “Technology is opening spaces and places none of us could’ve ever thought [possible].”
At the same time, expedition Co-director Dr. Keneiloe Molopyane uncovered the remains of a small hearth containing burnt antelope bones flanked by the remains of a much larger hearth in a nearby cave.
The team now plans to work on radiocarbon-dating their finds to firm up the link between the hearths and the Homo naledi fossils.
The need for fire by homo sapiens and other species
Throughout the vast study of evolutionary history, control of fire is perceived as one of the most fundamental milestones and a critical technology in the story of human evolution.
Fire provided light to illuminate dark places, enabled activity at night, and inadvertently kept wild animals away. It also made possible the switch from eating raw food to cooked food.
Therefore, the use of fire allowed the human brain to concentrate its energy and expand upon the number of skills that could be adapted or learned; hence man became the most dominant species on the planet.
Besides the ancient hominins, recently, evidence has been found across Europe suggesting that Neanderthals were also skilled fire users. Now, we may have to add another species to the list.