Programmes > Par auteur > Macdonald Katharine

The role of fire in human evolution
Katharine Macdonald  1@  
1 : Faculty of Archaeology, University of Leiden  -  Site web
Postbus 9514 2300 RA Leiden -  Pays-Bas

Fire has long been perceived as one of, if not the key, human technological innovations, underlying human evolutionary success, including our widespread distribution, and directing subsequent adaptations. This technology can be used for many purposes, from keeping warm, to cooking food, managing the landscape, making tools and extending daylight hours. The influential ‘Man the Hunter' volume underplayed the role of fire, although the contributors recognised some of these important applications. Archaeologists and palaeo-anthropologists have devoted considerable effort to identifying evidence for the use of fire in the distant past. Nevertheless, there continues to be widespread disagreement about when fire became a part of the behavioural repertoires of our lineage, and which hominin species first used fire, with suggestions ranging from Homo erectus 1.8 mya to relatively recent Anatomically Modern Humans. This is mainly the case because the remains of fire are fragile and preserved only in ideal conditions. While it seems clear that fire would have been a valuable tool in more temperate, seasonal environments, this inference is not clearly supported by the archaeological evidence. This paper aims to outline our current knowledge concerning the record for fire use, and relate this to the chronology for hominin dispersal into cooler regions. Recent debates and critiques of the evidence have stimulated new analyses, making this a rapidly changing field. I will address both the strengths and limitations to the evidence, and try to point to ways forward, including information needed from other disciplines. There is clearly still room for progress in refining the interpretation of fire evidence, as well as developing new proxies for fire use. Perhaps equally important is the need to take an example from ‘Man the Hunter' and consider fire as a behavioural strategy that was adaptive for hominins, with a suite of existing behavioural and biological characteristics, in a specific environmental context.


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