Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Playing with Fire

For many years it was believed that humans didn’t use fire until about 800,000 years ago. But two College of Arts & Sciences archaeologists have found evidence in South Africa of a man-made fire dating back 1.2 million years, the earliest such discovery. The finding by Francesco Berna and Paul Goldberg substantially pushes back the date that humans laid the first kindling. Berna and Goldberg’s research was published yesterday in the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Knowing when man first made fire has huge implications for understanding how our species evolved. Once early man had flames at his command, he not only had a source of heat, but a means to cook food. By unlocking nutrients in food, cooking made for a much better diet that not only boosted overall health, but may have contributed to other modern human traits, such as increased brain size and pair bonding, as the prominent primatologist Richard Wrangham has argued. Berna and Goldberg’s discovery bolsters Wrangham’s theory that our evolutionary predecessor, Homo erectus, was building fires and cooking far sooner than was previously thought.

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