Humans may not have been the only hominids who knew how to start a fire long ago. New research suggests that as early as 50,000 years ago, Neanderthals wielded this power as well.
The work, published in Scientific Reports, provides new evidence that Neanderthals may have created flames-on-demand by striking a small piece of pyrite against a biface — their favorite multipurpose stone tool. Scientists knew that Neanderthals were able to control and use fire, but controlling it and producing it are not the same thing, said Andrew Sorensen, a doctoral student in archaeology at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
Early humans created fire by striking steel or pyrite against flint to create a shower of sparks, which caused tinder to smolder, Sorensen said. Then they would place a piece of that smoldering material into a bundle of dried grass, for example, and blow it into a flame.
Sorensen wondered whether Neanderthals might have employed a similar technique. He experimented with creating fire by striking pyrite against a replica of a biface and compared the marks to those on 50,000-year-old bifaces collected in France. Bifaces are palm-sized, teardrop-shaped, multipurpose stone tools that functioned like a Neanderthal Swiss army knife. Sorensen said he also found that the microscopic mineral traces made by striking or rubbing flint against his modern-day biface were similar to those found on the ancient bifaces.
He is clear that his experiments do not provide definitive evidence that Neanderthals made fire. “The traces made by pyrite were the ‘best fit,’ ” he said. “But there could be some other mineral material that we just didn’t think of that could create similar traces.”
But until someone is able to demonstrate this, he said, fire-making appears to be the best interpretation. And if that’s the case, it’s just one more piece of evidence that the capabilities of Neanderthals and early modern humans were not so different after all.