History Stories

Neanderthals used fire, but archaeologists have debated whether our ancient cousins were able to start one on their own—or if they relied on naturally-occurring flames.

The ability to create fire is one of the biggest developments in our history as a species. Now, archaeologists have recovered artifacts suggesting that our ancient cousins, the Neanderthals, knew how to do it, too.

Neanderthals living in France roughly 50,000 years ago regularly started fires by striking flint with hard minerals like pyrite to generate a spark, according to a paper published in the scientific journal Nature. Andrew Sorensen and his colleagues at Leiden University in the Netherlands and the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research in France analyzed dozens of flint tools from multiple sites to conclude that Neanderthals managed to devise their own version of the modern match.

Previously, researchers knew that Neanderthals, or Homo neanderthalensis, used fire, but debated whether Neanderthals knew how to create it or simply learned to control fires that started naturally, as from a lightning strike.

The distinction between starting or controlling a fire is a pretty big deal, and there’s even an extremely ‘80s movie called A Quest for Fire that dramatizes why. The film opens with a group of Neanderthals who keep a naturally-occurring flame burning so they can use it as a resource. When the fire goes out one day, they’re devastated because they have no idea how to restart it (thus begins the Quest for Fire… ).

Keeping a naturally-occurring fire burning indefinitely “requires a lot of extra energy and time,” says Sorensen, a co-author of the paper who is completing his Ph.D. at Leiden University. “But if you’re able to make fire at will, then if fuel shortages are a problem, you can be more judicious with your fire use,” he continues. “So you can make a fire as needed for a specific task…and then just let it die out because you don’t have to worry about not having fire the next time you need it.”

This, he says, is “one of the major important implications of having the ability to make fire.”

Some of the stone tools discovered where they examined mineral use-wear traces. The arrows indicates the orientation of striations. (Credit: A. C. Sorensen/Nature/CC BY 4.0)

Some of the stone tools discovered where they examined mineral use-wear traces. The arrows indicates the orientation of striations. (Credit: A. C. Sorensen/Nature/CC BY 4.0)

Though it’s not clear how these Neanderthals used fire once they made it, Sorensen says that the ability to create fire could have allowed some Neanderthals to move into colder climates.

“You have some late Neanderthal sites in central Eurasia that are above the Arctic Circle, so very cold,” he says. “And you would hope that these people would’ve been able to have fire, the ability to make fire as needed, to help cope with those colder conditions.”

The flint tools Sorensen studied date to the late Middle Paleolithic, but Neanderthals had already been using fire—and possibly creating it—for much longer.

A research paper published in the scientific journal PNAS in February 2018 described charred digging sticks in Italy that Neanderthals likely crafted around 171,000 years ago. This is the earliest evidence of Neanderthals using fire to create tools. What’s unknown is whether they discovered this fire or started it themselves.

It’s unclear how long ago modern humans, or Homo sapiens, began creating fire on their own.

Homo erectus, the “Upright man” who preceded Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, interacted with fire as early as one million years ago in South Africa, according to a PNAS paper from May 2012. Early Homo sapiens may have used wood to create fire in Africa, the continent on which they originated, before moving north into Neanderthal territory. However, this has been difficult to prove simply because it’s rare to find wooden artifacts that are well-preserved.

In any case, the increasing evidence of interbreeding between Neanderthals and humans suggests that their history is tied to our own.

“Without fire…without the combustion process, we wouldn’t have the electricity; we wouldn’t have all the nice things that we’re used to,” Sorensen says. It’s important, he thinks, to understand “how we got from these early stages of fire use to where we are today.”