New evidence suggests that an ancient hominid known as Homo naledi may have ignited controlled fires in the pitch-dark chambers of an underground cave system.
Paleoanthropologist Lee Berger said in a December 1 presentation presented by the Carnegie Institution of Science in Washington, D.C., that researchers discovered traces of tiny furnaces and sooty wall and ceiling smudges in tunnels and chambers across South Africa’s Rising Star cave complex.
Berger, from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg said that: “Signs of fire use are everywhere in this cave system.”
According to the reports of Science News, the researchers believes H. naledi started the fires in the caves because no other hominid bones have been discovered there. However, the experts have yet to determine the age of the fire. Researchers outside of Berger’s group have yet to assess the new findings.
H. naledi fossils date from approximately 236,000 to 335,000 years ago, around when Homo sapiens first appeared. Many academics believe that hominids first used fire for illumination, warmth, and cooking around 400,000 years ago.
Due in great part to its tiny brain, H. naledi has not previously been linked to such behavior. Berger argues that it is now evident that H. naledi was still able to regulate fire with a brain that was about one-third the size of modern human brains.
In August of last year, Berger descended a steep shaft and investigated two cavernous chambers where fossils of H. naledi had been discovered. He observed thin rock sheets and stalactites that had partially developed over previous ceiling surfaces. According to Berger, some surfaces had charred, blackened patches as well as spots that seemed to be soot.
In the meantime, investigations of an adjacent cave chamber were directed by expedition codirector and Wits paleoanthropologist Keneiloe Molopyane. There, the researchers discovered two tiny fires filled with burned antelope and other animal bones together with wood fragments that had been torched. Then, in a more remote cave chamber where H. naledi fossils have been recovered, the remains of a campfire and surrounding charred animal bones were found.
However, W. Andrew Barr of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., who wasn’t involved in the research, notes that the main challenge for researchers will be to date the burned wood, bones, and other fire remains from the Rising Star chambers and show that the fireplaces there come from the same sediment layers as H. naledi fossils.
Barr said that: “That’s an absolutely critical first step before it will be possible to speculate about who may have made fires for what reason.”