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Human society could not exist without fire. Dr Karl sniffs out the site of the world’s oldest campfire barbeque.

It’s a pity that toasted marshmallows don’t leave any remnants for future archaeologists (Source: sumos/iStockphoto)

Our human society could not exist without fire and yet we often forget its positive impacts. While fire can be destructive, it also has a spiritual aspect, and it’s an absolutely essential part of our modern world.

Most of the energy we use today (electricity, cars, planes, etc) comes from fire usually by burning carbon. Back in the old days, we could capture fire only from lightning strikes, but then we learnt how to make it at will and to some extent, to tame it.

Way back then, the ability to control fire gave us our tools and metals. It also gave us warmth, food and light, helped bond us together around the campfire, and helped protect us from predators. Even today, we talk of ‘firepower’ as a measure of our ability to outgun those with less ‘firepower’.

Our satellites tell us that each year, about four million square kilometres of our planet gets burnt, mostly from natural causes. And yet many of us don’t see ‘fire’ as part of our natural lives. At most universities, the only department devoted to fire is there only to put it out.

But how long ago did we learn to control fire? We get a hint from a heat treatment technique that was used to make weaspons in Europe between 10,000 and 14,000 years ago, and in Africa perhaps some 164,000 years ago.

Until recently, the Kidja Aborigines in the Kimberley in northwestern Australia would use this technique to ‘fire’ or ‘heat treat’ selected pieces of stone. These ‘Kimberley points’ that they made were long, thin and very sharply pointed stones. They were simultaneously offensive weapons and kitchen knives.

The Kimberley Aborigines would start with a large fire in the sand, about half-a-metre deep. After the fire had burnt out, they removed the hot coals, placed blocks of white chalcedony stone on the clean, but still-hot, sand on the bottom, and then covered the stone blocks with more sand and the glowing red-hot coals. When it had all cooled down (after three to four days) they removed the heat-treated blocks of stone, and then used pressure to flake off the incredibly sharp Kimberley points.

Heat treatment would increase the length of a Kimberley point from 10 to 50 millimetres, and also let them get more Kimbeley points from each stone block.

But that was fire-making weapons. Just when did we start regularly using fire to prepare our meals?

Well, until recently there were two possible contenders for the title of oldest campfire. One was the Swartkrans site in South Africa dating back one to 1.5 million years ago, while the other was the Gesher Benot Ya’akov site in Israel dating back 700,000 to 800,000 years ago. But each of these sites is out in the open, so it could have been lightning (rather than people) that ignited the fire.

The current favourite for oldest regularly used fireplace is the million-year-old site inside the Wonderwerk Cave in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa. It’s about 40 square metres in area.

This cave is one of the oldest known locations for human habitation. We humans (or at least us, Homo Sapiens, and our predecessor, Homo Erectus seem to have been living in this 140-metre-long cave for the last two million years and seem to have been cooking food in there for the last one million years.

There is a layer of ash about two metres thick, and about 30 metres in from the entrance of the cave. The depth means that fires were lit on the same spot over and over again. The 30-metre distance in from the mouth of the cave means that lightning definitely could not have created the initial fire.

The ash from these many campfires was created in the fireplace, and definitely not blown in from outside. The ash particles (from grasses, brushes, leaves and bones) are very fragile but they still have their jagged edges, which get very quickly worn away once the wind gets hold of them. There is also evidence of at least 80 separate burned teeth and 595 burned bones. The surface discolouration of the teeth and bones is typical of a low-temperature controlled burn (400 to 700 degrees C), not a wildfire.

So it does seem that the Wonderwerk Cave has been hosting campfire barbeques for about a million years. It’s a pity that toasted marshmallows don’t leave any remnants for future archaeologists.

Tags: archaeology

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Published 21 August 2012

2012 Karl S. Kruszelnicki Pty Ltd

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22 Aug 2012 8:15:25pm

Is than error in a measurement somewhere in the Wonderwerk Cave, please, or were Homo Erectus very thin? The length is given as 140 metres and the area as 40 square metres.

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23 Aug 2012 8:22:15pm

Barry, the cave is 140 meters long but the ash from the fireplace itself takes up about 40 sq. meters of that area. Many generations (of multiple families?) would use their own cooking fires in a different spot over a long period of time (1 million years) therefore producing a large area of ash. Or it could be that the same fire pit was used for all of that time and the waste ash was dumped at the back to build up over the last million years.

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23 Aug 2012 10:37:10pm

Barry, suggest you read the article carefully. The cave is described as 140 metres long while the fireplace has an area of 40 Sq metres.

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23 Aug 2012 11:44:20pm

I read it as the fire site being 40 sq metres in a cave 140 mtrs deep. Over a million years of campfires an ash bed 8m x 5m seems pretty good aim to me

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24 Aug 2012 1:03:13pm

I think you mis-read the article Barry. The cave is 140 metres deep. Inside the cave there is a fireplace 40 metres square. There is no mention of how many square metres space for the entire cave

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28 Aug 2012 1:44:55am

When did humans first use fire? About six thousand years ago, give or take a few days.

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