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Human ancestors used fire one million years ago, archaeologist find

An international team led by the University of Toronto and Hebrew University has identified the earliest known evidence of the use of fire by human ancestors. Microscopic traces of wood ash, alongside animal bones and stone tools, were found in a layer dated to one million years ago at the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa.

"The analysis pushes the timing for the human use of fire back by 300,000 years, suggesting that human ancestors as early as Homo erectus may have begun using fire as part of their way of life," said U of T anthropologist Michael Chazan, co-director of the project and director of U of T's Archaeology Centre.

The research will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on April 2.

Wonderwerk is a massive cave located near the edge of the Kalahari where earlier excavations by Peter Beaumont of the McGregor Museum in Kimberley, South Africa, had uncovered an extensive record of human occupation. A research project, co-directed by U of T's Chazan and Liora Kolska Horwitz of Hebrew University, has been doing detailed analysis of the material from Beaumont's excavation along with renewed field work on the Wonderwerk site. Analysis of sediment by lead authors Francesco Berna and Paul Goldberg of Boston University revealed ashed plant remains and burned bone fragments, both which appear to have been burned locally rather than carried into the cave by wind or water. The researchers also found extensive evidence of surface discoloration that is typical of burning.


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Wow! That is really a breakthrough if true! Thanks a lot for sharing! 

Do you have any idea what the diet of a Homo erectus consisted of? I wonder what did they use the fire for. Only for heating themselves or also for roasting food? What are the implications of this (possible) discovery as to our capacity of digesting foods which were submitted to heat, from an evolutionary perspective?

All the debates about when humans began using fire or began ingesting burned food full of toxic fire byproducts are not answering some of the other, possibly even more important questions. How fast does the evolution work? Do we have any proof of other species converting their physiology to be able to consume a different diet (like horses being carnivores a million years ago)? How long did it take for this "transition" to take place? Until the entire story of our "adoption" is explained, I will rather believe the modern WC-paleo-smell proof over the oldest-ashes-in-the-world proof. Besides that, we would have to adopt to meat AND cooking, unless you like your stakes raw.

If early humans were using fire to cook food, it was probably tubers, which were a good source of carbs and not exploited by other species.

That said, whatever evidence that early humans used fire in the relatively recent past, there is still the  previous 50+ million year history of specializing in fruit and we still have a body optimized for fruit digestion.

Well, looking at our own species, the ability to digest lactose developed independently in different parts of the world within the last 10,000 years, probably more like 7000 in Europe.  That's a pretty significant adaptation in very little time.  Just because something was important for survival in our past doesn't necessarily mean we have to pay any attention to it now, though.

This is interesting. I suppose it won't take all that long for our descendants to be able to thrive on hamburgers. :) Seriously, can you point me in the direction of any research or studies about this lactose thing? Not asking you to prove anything, just showing genuine interest, will do my own search too. And to add to your argument, I can't think of any modern "food" that is problematic ONLY because it contains lactose.

These are the first 3 results that came up when I searched "lactase adaptation."  I just glanced at them, so hopefully they're kinda what you were looking for.




I'm not quite sure what you're saying about adding to my argument, but that's okay :)  I was just saying that when periods of scarcity meant that those who were able to digest milk survived while others starved, tolerance to lactose was a huge deal which is why it spread so quickly.  With modern food production, we aren't really affected the same way, so adaptation will probably be based of factors more nuanced than just starve vs. live.

I was going to bring up lactose tolerance as well.  This is definitely an instance of evolution that has occurred in a very short period of time, but it is not an example of humans adapting to derive sustenance from a totally new food source.

As mammals we are all designed to drink milk for a short period of time after birth, some groups of people are just able to continue breaking down lactose into the sugars glucose and galactose after infancy while others are not.  Individuals descended from milk-drinking cultures have a slight variation in the gene(s) responsible for controlling production of the digestive enzyme 'lactase'.  This variation tells the body to continue creating lactase into adulthood which allows these individuals to go on drinking milk throughout their entire life.

What do you mean by "a totally new food source?"  Are you talking about the past adaptation to fat-based foods as opposed to carbohydrate-based or something as of yet unseen in the future?  And what kind of new food source might that be?

That's a good question and I should have been clearer in my post and in my thoughts.  By "totally new food source" I meant any type of food that we previously did not eat as a species.  For example, adapting to eat starchy tubors in their natural state.  That kind of evolution can of course happen, I just thought it was worth pointing out that this was not the case with the development of increased lactose-tolerance. 

Your post has pushed me to think more deeply on what constitutes a food.  I would guess that any animal capable of processing fat could digest meat or nuts to some extent.   And any animal capable of breaking down starch could eat starch based foods.  It would be interesting to learn more about this subject.

We can't digest lactose. About 95% of white people can digest half of it. About 5% of black people can. 5% of white people are completely intolerant and 95% of black people generally are.

Which is why when given to different pigmented babies, white babies get constipated and black babies get diarrhea. (These are side effects of either semi or full lactose intolerance). These don't just affect babies but adults as well. Of course we need higher quantities. But yes, lactose is problematic on it's own.

The adaptation is pre-existing in the genes as well.

Because Europeans were generally drinking cow milk more than others they began to keep half of the genes on for digesting lactose. This is simply to

Btw I never heard of anything happening

if this is true - which i dont believe so but if it is - what do you think they used fire for - cooking animals or keeping themselves warm ?

here is the inuit scoop with references:

3.4 The Inuit Idiocy

in friendship,




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