Scientists have known for years that our Neanderthal cousins made use of fire to cook and make tar from birch bark, but we didn’t know much about where they got the fire. Were they simply at the mercy of mother nature, collecting fire from lightning strikes, or could they start their own fires whenever they needed it? Archaeologist Andrew Sorensen and his colleagues now say Neanderthals knew how to make fire, and they came to that decision after making fire themselves.
Sorensen and his team at Leiden University suspected that flint tools often found at Neanderthal dig sites held the answer to early humanoid mastery of fire. Any place Neanderthals lived, archaeologists are likely to find a type of flint tool called a Biface. These hand axes were used for everything from chopping wood to skinning animals, and the researchers believed starting fires were also part of the feature set.
In order to know if this was even feasible, Sorensen started by making his own Bifaces. It’s a simple tool — the simplest, actually. You take a piece of flint and break it in just the right way to expose sharp edges. With his modern reproduction Bifaces in hand, Sorensen retreated to his lab to start testing. When striking a flint Biface with pyrite, you get a small shower of sparks. Sorensen confirmed that you could ignite tinder with this method, so Neanderthals had the tools to make fire. But did they?
According to a newly published paper, Neanderthals likely used the same method Sorensen used to start fires. Upon examination of his modern Bifaces, Sorensen noted that the pyrite left small marks on the rock. So, they set to examining real Neanderthal tools for similar patterns of “microwear.” It’s not easy to find such subtle markings on stone tools from 50,000 years ago, but the team identified when they believe to be the correct wear patterns.
The discovery of microwear patterns on stone tools isn’t a slam dunk, though. It’s possible these marks could have come from something else, and there are no sites where flint Bifaces were found with pyrite strikers in the same archaeological layer. What we can say is that Neanderthals would have had the necessary tools to start their own fires, and modern research suggests these hominids were as intelligent as modern humans.
Top image credit: Andrew Sorensen/Leiden University