Fire: these days, starting one is as easy as flicking the switch on a gas stove. But if you’ve ever been on a camping trip, you know first-hand how elusive a good fire can be. Especially when deprived of our modern tools, fire-starting can be quite an ordeal, leaving the would-be masters of the element scrambling to their smartphones for tips.
Ancient humans, of course, didn’t have access to wifi. Much as we take it for granted these days, simply realizing that fire could be harnessed represents a huge developmental milestone for our species—not just light and heat but a means by which to obtain safer and tastier food. Some theorize that we began by “harvesting” fire from naturally occurring wildfires and only later developed the ability to make our own. But eventually, we did. Animals from otters to crows to apes have been spotted using simple tools, but deliberately created fire is a technology that belongs squarely to Homo sapiens.
Or, you know, so we used to believe. However, recently a team of researchers from the University of Connecticut, working with counterparts in Armenia, the UK, and Spain, have a different story to tell. Their work strongly suggests that Neanderthal and other ancient humans also learned how to make and control fire.
Short of interviewing our extinct evolutionary cousins, how is this possible? When organic material is burned, it produces certain carbons—specifically, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. These are deposited in sedimentary layers in the environment. Light PAHs, which disperse widely, indicate wildfires, while heavy PAHs tend to stay concentrated around the source of the fire. Researchers analyzing a known Neanderthal settlement in the Armenian highlands found those heavy PAHs in Lusakert Cave 1, along with the clues you’d expect in an area that had obtained free access to fire: increased concentrations of animal bones and signs of tool-making.
By analyzing the chemical compositions of ancient plant tissues preserved in sediments, researchers were able to rule out the possibility that the climate back then was simply more likely to spark wildfires. The era the cave was occupied was not noticeably drier. In fact, signs suggest that the fires date back to a time of fewer local wildfires.
It seems the Neanderthals at Lusakert Cave were able to not only master the complicated art of creating fire without lighters or matches, but the equally complicated art of passing the process on to future generations. There was a time when science saw Neanderthals as a brutish, simple people—an evolutionary “rough draft” before the final version of Homo sapiens. This find is part of a growing wave suggesting that the real story is more complicated and more interesting, as more and more evidence of Neanderthal complexity comes to light.