Neanderthals dominated Europe and Asia for hundreds of thousands of years. During this time they survived several ice ages with the help of innovations you might expect, like clothes. However, the Neanderthals seem to have ignored one important piece of cold weather technology: fire.
Contrary to what you might expect, as the Neanderthals made fewer fires as the climate worsened. At some French sites, the number of cooked bones drops to nearly 90% of their pre-ice age levels. Evidence of hearths at those sites also drops considerably1.
Some researchers speculate that this is because Neanderthals couldn’t actually start fires of their own. Instead, they had to rely on natural sources of ignition, like lightning. As these natural fires became less frequent during the ice ages, the Neanderthals had fewer chances to exploit it for their own fires1.
The prosecution rests
That is most of the evidence against Neanderthals being fire starters: they made fewer fires than expected. Crucially, this drop in burnings coincides with a drop in natural fires; consistent with them being reliant on those as an ignition source.
See, one of the main sources of natural fire is lightning strikes and the resulting flaming vegetation. As the climate deteriorates, the amount of burnable shrubland decreases. As the ice ages got into full swing, forest cover shrank and much of Europe became open steppe and tundra. Although these environments can still be dry enough for a fire, there’s a lot less vegetation per square foot so fires will burn themselves out a lot faster2
Why this matters – We did start the fire
Our ancestors have been using fire for close to 1.5 million years. That’s a really, really long time. For context, that means our use of fire predates our own species, art, structures, spears, burials, and more3.
However, there are only a handful of early cases of fire. At the few sites they do appear, the inhabitants only seem to have started one or two fires. This stands in stark contrast to later periods, where dozens of fires in the same spot build up thick, ashy hearths over decades4.
This has led many researchers to conclude that these early fire users weren’t actually fire starters. Instead, they were relying upon naturally occurring fires for a source of ignition. It took hundreds of thousands of years for our lineage to build up the skills to make their own fire4.
Conventional wisdom holds that this may have happened around the 1 million years ago when evidence of repeated fires at the same location becomes more common. Humans and Neanderthals are sibling species, but we split after this date5. Thus, we would have both inherited the ability to start fires from our evolutionary parents.
However, if Neanderthals couldn’t start fires this would make the invention of ignition a later development. A development that only happened on the human line. Such a key technological difference between our two species could explain why we survived but they didn’t. This is why this matters.
Red hot controversy
Of course, all of this evidence basically boils down to (pun intended) a lack of evidence for Neanderthal fire. And as we’ve all probably heard in countless internet arguments, the absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. As such, many remain unconvinced by the argument against Neanderthals being able to make fire.
After all, it’s based on less than 10 Neanderthal sites, all from France. Taking a wider sample reveals the number of sites with evidence of burning increases during this period (even if each site may show fewer cases of burning within it)6.
On top of this simple logical argument, there are a few other reasons people think fire might have become less common during ice ages. Remember back to the top of this post? Where it was noted how fewer first take hold in ice age-style environments? This is partly due to the fact burnable vegetation is a lot less dense in tundra than in, say a forest.
Well, less wood for wildfires also means less wood for Neanderthals to burn. Estimates suggest just a 1% drop in firewood availability would mean it takes an extra hour a day to gather up enough of the stuff. It doesn’t take too much more before fuelling a fire becomes untenable, cutting into vital sleeping and hunting time7.
Maybe Neanderthals just had better things to do with their lives.
- Dibble, H.L., Abodolahzadeh, A., Aldeias, V., Goldberg, P., McPherron, S.P. and Sandgathe, D.M., 2017. How did hominins adapt to ice age Europe without fire?. Current Anthropology, 58(S16), pp.S278-S287.
- Dibble, H.L., Sandgathe, D., Goldberg, P., McPherron, S. and Aldeias, V., 2018. Were Western European Neandertals Able to Make Fire?. Journal of Paleolithic Archaeology, pp.1-26.
- John Gowlett (2009). The Longest Transition or Multiple Revolutions? Curves and Steps in the Record of Human Origins Sourcebook of Paleolithic Transitions, 65-78 DOI: 10.1007/978-0-387-76487-0_4
- Gowlett, J.A., 2016. The discovery of fire by humans: a long and convoluted process. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 371(1696), p.20150164.
- Langergraber KE, Prüfer K, Rowney C, Boesch C, Crockford C, Fawcett K, Inoue E, Inoue-Muruyama M, Mitani JC, Muller MN, Robbins MM, Schubert G, Stoinski TS, Viola B, Watts D, Wittig RM, Wrangham RW, Zuberbühler K, Pääbo S, & Vigilant L (2012). Generation times in wild chimpanzees and gorillas suggest earlier divergence times in great ape and human evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109 (39), 15716-21 PMID: 22891323
- Roebroeks, W. and Villa, P., 2011. On the earliest evidence for habitual use of fire in Europe. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(13), pp.5209-5214.
- Henry, A.G., 2017. Neanderthal cooking and the costs of fire. Current Anthropology, 58(S16), pp.S329-S336.