Posts Tagged ‘Homo Erectus’

Control of fire was more recent than 1.2 million years ago (but it was still the start of the anthropocene)

December 16, 2016

A new paper analysing dental plaque from a hominin molar suggests that this group did not use fire for cooking, but had a balanced diet of raw meat and plants. The molar is one of the earliest hominin fragments found in Europe and is thought to be 1.2 million years old. Of course they may have had some rudimentary control of fire which did not extend, till then, to cooking.

Hardy, K., Radini, A., Buckley, S. et al. Sci Nat (2017) 104: 2. doi:10.1007/s00114-016-1420-x, Diet and environment 1.2 million years ago revealed through analysis of dental calculus from Europe’s oldest hominin at Sima del Elefante, Spain

Abstract: Sima del Elefante, Atapuerca, Spain contains one of the earliest hominin fragments yet known in Europe, dating to 1.2 Ma. Dental calculus from a hominin molar was removed, degraded and analysed to recover entrapped remains. Evidence for plant use at this time is very limited and this study has revealed the earliest direct evidence for foods consumed in the genus Homo. This comprises starchy carbohydrates from two plants, including a species of grass from the Triticeae or Bromideae tribe, meat and plant fibres. All food was eaten raw, and there is no evidence for processing of the starch granules which are intact and undamaged. Additional biographical detail includes fragments of non-edible wood found adjacent to an interproximal groove suggesting oral hygiene activities, while plant fibres may be linked to raw material processing. Environmental evidence comprises spores, insect fragments and conifer pollen grains which are consistent with a forested environment.

The control of fire is thought to have been achieved between 1.5 million and 400,000 years ago and coinciding with the evolution of homo habilis to homo erectus. This research suggests that , at least in Europe, cooking had not been established by 1.2 million years ago. But whether the particular individual whose molar has been studies was a homo erectus or an evolving homo habilis is unknown.


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The intriguing question, of course, is whether human evolution led to control of fire or whether the control of fire led to the evolution of homo sapiens from homo erectus. The archaeological evidence is that control of fire was certainly established by about 800,000 years ago and that hearths (specifically for cooking) were known some 400,000 years ago. This research is consistent with the eating of cooked meat not having begun by 1.2 million years ago. Probably this was not widespread till about 400,000 years ago.

I find it most plausible that the control of fire was the single critical development/advance which made the evolution to homo sapiens possible and which made human social and technological development inevitable. It also seems more than just plausible that the real increase in brain size was connected to cooking and the increase of energy available to the human physique by a diet based on cooking meat. It was the control of fire which was the true start of the anthropocene:

The advent and control of fire led – eventually but inevitably –  to the Stone Age transforming into the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. And in due course it has given the Machine Age, the Electrical Age, the Plastics Age and the current Semiconductors Age. All these “Ages” are surely part of the Anthropocene. There is a case to be made for the advent of stone tools defining Man but I think there is a much stronger case to be made for the advent and control of fire being what defines and distinguishes “Man” from all other animals.

Once fire was harnessed, the dominance of Homo Sapiens not just over other species but also over the environment became inevitable. Fire saw humans through the Ice Ages. The Stone Age plus fire gave the Bronze Age. The Bronze Age + fire led to the Iron Age. It was fire in its various avatars (hearths to ovens to smelters, or energy to steam to electricity) which helped transform one Age to the next.

The one single capability which initiated the divergence of humans from all other animals and which has resulted in the inevitable development and domination of modern humans is the control of fire. And that was around 400,000 years ago. The Age of Man began when Homo Erectus learned to produce fire at will and to contain fire in a hearth. I would even speculate that without fire Homo Erectus would not have survived to evolve into Homo Sapiens. Without fire Homo Sapiens would not have thrived through the ice ages or left the tropics to colonise more northern climes.


Homo erectus was making engravings 500,000 years ago

December 4, 2014

Long before any specimens of Homo sapiens were even gleams in the eyes of their hominin ancestors, Homo erectus peoples on Java (how and when did they get there?) were using shells as tools and were making engravings on the shells themselves. A new paper in Nature reports on studies of hundreds of fossil shells from the Homo erectus site Trinil, on the Indonesian island of Java. The shells are part of the Dubois Collection held at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden. They have been dated to about 500,000 years ago.

Of course if all Homo Sapiens came Out of Africa (or Africarabia) around 100,000 years ago, then these Homo erectus on Java must have gone extinct without leaving any survivors (unless some of their genes still live on through later admixtures).

Joordens J.C.A., et al. Homo erectus at Trinil on Java used shells for tool product i on and engraving, Nature 10.1038/nature19362.

The 'Pseudodon shell' fossil with the engraving made by Homo erectus op Trinil. (Photo: Wim Lustenhouwer, Vrije Universiteit)

The ‘Pseudodon shell’ fossil with the engraving made by Homo erectus on Trinil. (Photo: Wim Lustenhouwer, Vrije Universiteit)

From the Leiden University Press Release:

Oldest ever engraving discovered on 500,000-year-old shell

Homo erectus on Java was already using shells of freshwater mussels as tools half a million years ago, and as a ‘canvas’ for an engraving. An international team of researchers, led by Leiden archaeologist José Joordens, published this discovery on 3 December in Nature. The discovery provides new insights into the evolution of human behaviour.

‘Until this discovery, it was assumed that comparable engravings were only made by modern humans – Homo sapiens – in Africa, starting about 100,000 years ago,’ says lead author José Joordens, researcher at the Faculty of Archaeology at Leiden University.

A team of 21 researchers studied hundreds of fossil shells from the Homo erectus site Trinil, on the Indonesian island of Java. The shells are part of the Dubois Collection held at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden. The shells were excavated at the end of the 19th century by the Dutch physician and researcher Eugène Dubois, the discoverer ofPithecanthropus erectus – now known as Homo erectus.

The discovery of an engraved geometrical pattern on one of the shells came as a total surprise. The zigzag pattern, that can only be seen with oblique lighting, clearly pre-dates the weathering processes on the shell arising from fossilisation. The study has excluded the possibility that the pattern could have been caused by animals or by natural weathering processes and shows that the zigzag pattern is the work of Homo erectus.

By applying two dating methods, researchers at the VU University Amsterdam and Wageningen University have determined that the shell with the engraving is minimally 430,000 and maximally 540,000 years old.This means that the engraving is at least four times older than the previously oldest known engravings, found in Africa. …..

…… This research has shown that these early human-like people were very clever about how they opened these large freshwater mussels; they drilled a hole through the shell using a sharp object, possibly a shark’s tooth, exactly at the point where the muscle is attached that keeps the shell closed. ‘The precision with which these early humans worked indicates great dexterity and detailed knowledge of mollusc anatomy,’ says Frank Wesselingh, a researcher and expert on fossil shells at Naturalis. The molluscs were eaten and the empty shells were used to manufacture tools, such as knives.

A. Shell tool, made by Homo erectus. B. Detail of the sharp edge used for cutting or etching. (Photo: Francesco d'Errico, Bordeaux University)

A. Shell tool, made by Homo erectus. B. Detail of the sharp edge used for cutting or etching. (Photo: Francesco d’Errico, Bordeaux University)



Controlled use of fire now dated back to at least 1 million YBP

April 3, 2012

How fire came to be discovered and then brought under control by our ancestors will probably always remain a matter for speculation. There is evidence that forest fires were occurring “naturally” at least 350 million years ago when plant life colonised the land. It may have been earlier since volcanoes were active long before this but the combustible matter needed (fuel and oxygen) which volcanic eruptions could have ignited would have been plentiful only around 350 million years ago.

Many animals have learned to take advantage of the benefits of wildfires – mainly after the fire is over. Some birds of prey take advantage of fleeing insects and small animals while the fire is still raging. Carnivores search in the ashes for animals killed by the fire but still with edible remains. Herbivores gather to lick the ashes for tasty “elements” and salts. Our ancestors would have been observers and beneficiaries of the accidental “cooking” and the warmth from forest or bush fires for many millions of years.


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