Early humans forged tools with fire: study


June 18, 2010 Updated Aug 13, 2009 at 3:31 PM EDT

Humans living along the southern tip of Africa some 72,000 years ago used fire to forge and shape their stone tools and weapons, said a study published Thursday by the journal Science.

The findings indicate that modern humans were capable of complex thought much earlier and in a different part of the world than previously believed, the study said.

"We show that early modern humans at 72,000 years ago, and perhaps as early as 164,000 years ago in coastal South Africa, were using carefully controlled hearths in a complex process known as heat treatment," said study lead author Kyle Brown.

"These early modern humans commanded fire in a nuanced and sophisticated manner," said Brown, a doctoral candidate at the University of Cape Town.

Until now, the widely held belief was that humans began using heat to forge tools 25,000 years ago in Europe, the researchers said.

The study bases its conclusions on pieces of silcrete, a type of stone, that were found in various states of glossiness, indicating they had been treated with heat.

"Heat treatment technology begins with a genius moment -- someone discovers that heating stone makes it easier to flake," said study co-author Curtis Marean.

"This knowledge is then passed on, and in a way unique to humans, the technology is slowly ratcheted up in complexity as the control of the heating process, cooling and flaking grows in sophistication," Marean said.

"Prior to our work, heat treatment was widely regarded as first occurring in Europe at about 25,000 years ago," said Marean. "We push this back at least 45,000 years, and, perhaps, 139,000 years, and place it on the southern tip of Africa at Pinnacle Point."

He believes that human living in this part of Africa began migrating north at least 50,000 years ago and "penetrated into the colder glacial environment of Europe and Asia, where they encountered Neanderthals."

Their mastery of fire "provides us with a potential explanation for the rapid migration of these Africans across glacial Eurasia."

The study was conducted by researchers from universities in Cape Town, Liverpool, Wollogong in Australia and Bordeaux in France.

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