Did Neanderthals Start Fires?

This is very problematic, Faz Rana refuses to do his homework when writing articles about Neanderthals and other archaic humans. Here is making the claim that Neanderthals didn’t control fire.


But human control of fires goes back 1.8 million years to before Neanderthals evolved.

Does Faz just put on blinders and ignore all the evidence that Homo Erectus controlled fire and began cooking meat more than a million years ago? @AJRoberts please forward to Faz.


This is a particularly interesting and important question.


Scientists working outside the realm of archaeology—most notably primatologist Richard Wrangham—have persuasively argued that Homo erectus tamed fire, Berna noted. Wrangham has long been championing the theory that cooking allowed human ancestors to consume more calories and, as a result, to develop larger brains. He has largely based his hypothesis on physical changes in early hominins—for instance, a shift toward smaller teeth and stomachs—that took place around the time Homo erectus evolved.

“So far, Richard Wrangham’s cooking hypothesis is based on anatomical and phylogenetic evidence that show that Homo erectus may have been already adapted to a cooked food diet,” Berna explained. “Our evidence from Wonderwerk is consistent with Homo erectus being able to eat cooked food.”


Hi, Patrick. If you send me the link to the primary literature you’re referencing here, I will forward your comment and the link to Fuz and ask him if he has time to reply.

In the meantime, I can speculate on one distinction he is likely to make: controlling or capitalizing on fire that occurs through natural events is not the same as creating fire, or starting fires on demand. Controlling fires is a bit ambiguous as to which of these two things you might mean. Fuz is likely to agree Erectus could capitalize on fire use, but Fuz contests this as qualitatively different than creating fire on demand.

Please send me the link for your quote, and I’ll see if Fuz can weigh in himself.

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Also, I found these quotes in a couple of Fuz’s other blogs. So it is at least a partial answer for how he might respond to the question about Homo erectus’ use of fire…

" While controversy abounds among paleoanthropologists about fire use by hominins such as Homo erectus , most scientists working in this field believe Neanderthals mastered fire. This view finds its basis in the discovery of primitive hearths, burned bones, heated lithics, and charcoal at Neanderthal archeological sites. Frankly, fire use by Neanderthals bothers me. If these creatures could create and use fire—in short, if they mastered fire (called pyrotechnology)—it makes them much more like us—but uncomfortably so.

"Yet, recent work raises questions about Neanderthal fire usage.1 Careful assessment of archeological sites in southern France occupied by Neanderthals from about 100,000 to 40,000 years ago indicates that Neanderthals could not create fire. Instead, they made opportunistic use of natural fire when available to them.

"The French sites show clear evidence of fire use by Neanderthals. However, when researchers correlated the archeological layers harboring evidence for fire use with paleoclimate data, they found an unexpected pattern. Neanderthals used fire during warm climate conditions and failed to use fire during cold periods—the opposite of what would be predicted—if Neanderthals had mastery over fire.

“Instead, this unusual correlation indicates that Neanderthals made opportunistic use of fire. Lightning strikes that would generate natural fires are much more likely to occur during warm periods. Instead of creating fire, Neanderthals most likely collected natural fire and cultivated it as long as they could before it extinguished.”

and this…

" Chimpanzees Exploit Natural Fire [T]he capacity to make opportunistic use of fire seems pretty impressive. At least until Neanderthal behavior is compared to that of chimpanzees. Recent work by Jill Pruetz indicates that these great apes understand the behavior of natural fires and even exploit them.2 Pruetz and her collaborator observed the response of the Fongoli community of chimpanzees to two wildfires in the spring of 2006. The members of the community calmly monitored the fires at close range and then changed their behavior in anticipation of the fires’ movement. To put it another way, the chimpanzees’ behavior was predictive, not responsive. This capacity is impressive, because the behavior of natural fires is complex, depending on wind speed and direction and the amount and type of fuel sources.

“So, as impressive as Neanderthal behavior may seem, their opportunistic use of fire seems more closely in line with chimpanzee behavior than that of human beings, who create and control fire at will. In fact, Pruetz believes one reason chimpanzees don’t harvest natural fire relates to their lack of manual dexterity.”

The primary reference for the chimpanzee response to fire is: 2. Jill D. Pruetz and Thomas C. LaDuke, “Brief Communication: Reaction to Fire by Savanna Chimpanzees ( Pan troglodytes verus ) at Fongoli, Senegal: Conceptualization of “Fire Behavior” and the Case for a Chimpanzee Model,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 141 (April 2010) 646–50, doi:10.1002/ajpa.21245.


Why can’t we just push human uniqueness back? If neanderthals had language, etc., that means an extraordinary evolutionary feature came very early. The change could still be saltational. As Denton points out, if we took the aborigines and put them in our culture, they could adapt just fine because they’re human. If that’s the case with neanderthals and erectus, this doesn’t suggest a gradualistic model anymore than pushing the origin of life further back in time suggests gradualism. In fact, it would seem to suggest the opposite, right?

As long as we don’t take Genesis 1-11 literally, there ceases to be a problem. It’s very hard to extend the genealogies back to 500,000 years ago, but it certainly doesn’t seem difficult to extend human uniqueness back that far. Scientifically, I feel like Michael Denton would agree with me. @Agauger would probably agree on a scientific level with me as well, though we would disagree about the interpretion of Genesis.

Although I have my issues with the GA model, it doesn’t stand or fall on whether neanderthals were human either, though I think a better explanation needs to be offered for the spiritual status of these humans before Adam.


A question for those who are much more knowledgeable on this topic: Wouldn’t fuel for fires be more plentiful during warm periods? Depending on what types of trees and bushes are in an area, isn’t it more difficult to find dry timber appropriate for campfire purposes in at least some cold climate situations? And isn’t it especially difficult to find dry tinder under some of those cold climate eras?

POSTSCRIPT: When I first saw the thread title, “Did Neanderthals Start Fires?”, it sounded like it was accusing neanderthals of being pyromaniacs. (Yeah, my mind is a bit bent.)

On another thread, we are discussing “Yes, Neanderthals Could Laugh.” I get this image of a bunch of neanderthals gathered in a cave late at night and the featured comic tells his audience: “The other day I speared a mammoth which was sooooo very big.” The crowd replies in unison: “How big was it!” The comic says, “That mammoth was so big that the wife and I were able to set aside a little bit of it for a downpayment on a five-bedroom cave.” rimshot

[That groan-worthy rimshot was for @Dan_Eastwood.]


Depends on what we mean by “human uniqueness”… if it’s things like modern language, math, poetry, pottery etc…
It’s impossible to push it beyond 20k years or so.
If it’s things like walking upright, making primitive stone tools(like sharpened flints)… we could push it back a couple of million years or so… (even bonobos are known to make stone tools in controlled settings!)
If the limit is using more complex stone tools, crude ornaments,etc then that’s about 40k years ago…
If it’s agriculture… then we are talking 10k years ago…

Some scientists may have forgotten what “human uniqueness” means… why should we?

Temperature and wetness are not necessarily linked. Climates may be cold and wet, cold and dry, or anywhere in between. A neanderthal knowing how to make and use fire, would probably know about keeping a supply of dry tinder, I think.

Also, this is for @AllenWitmerMiller :smile:


Human uniqueness has always been “what separates from all other primate species” and the answer is everything you list above. It is not just one trait, one behavior, nor one enabling event. It is all of the above starting with upright walking, to stone tools, to cooking meat, to enlarged brains, to culture, language. It is a more than 2 million year continuum over many species in the genus Homo.

Obviously. That is why I emphasized the word “some” with italics: I didn’t know if the era and region where the neanderthals lived was cold and wet or if it was cold and dry. Which was it?

Meanwhile, my specific question was about the warm periods. Warm climate, whether very wet or only reasonably moist (non-arid) tends to produce potential fuel for fires.

It is my understanding that some tribes in our own day are able to take advantage of existing fires but have never developed skills in gathering tinder for simplifying fire starting. [I heard this somewhere in a documentary but haven’t tried to verify it. It could be a false claim.] So can we be sure that neanderthals had skills superior to theirs (in terms of starting fires with tinder?)

As to the neanderthal microscope, I would think it was only useful for extremely patient mammoths.


I have been on record for some time as accepting a unique human origin with Homo erectus 2 mya. The other possible point where new things are happening is at the time of the emergence of H sapiens and Neanderthals at about 500 kya. As to interpretation of Genesis, probably the only way we differ is that my personal preference is a unique origin rather than a bottleneck from a preexisting population. The two time frame scenarios can’t distinguish between a unique origin or a bottleneck. The genetic similarities argue for a common origin, but there are other explanations possible. The fossil record doesn’t point to a clear origin for H erectus other than Africa, the same for Neanderthals and H sapiens (If it does, I’d love to know, so please share the references.


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That’s one way to look at it… however, if you exclude primitive tools/upright walking, pretty much all the rest emerged fairly recently. Within a 100kya. There is a sudden jump in cognition,language,brain structure,culture and civilization over the last 50kya to maybe 100kya.

That’s what the evidence doesn’t show - No sudden jumps in cognition, language, brain structure nor civilization 100 kya to the dawn of agriculture 12 kya

I think I have already shown you papers about how modern language emerged. (This also involved changes in the brain by the way and vocal chords by the way).

And I have already shown you how homo erectus had language a million years ago and every species of genus Homo continued the evolution of language and culture. It was the reason for the changes in brain processing and speech and hearing centers in the brain. Language, culture, cognitive skills, brain shape, speech, and hearing attuned to speech all evolved together continuously for a million years. No sudden jumps.

If mutations are random with respect to fitness… this can’t be right… That’s not how scientists claim the process works.
I think you have bought into a populist fairy tale told by some anthropologist.

It is exactly how it worked for a million years - language and culture drove fitness. Humans evolved better and better cognitive skills resulting in humans changing the world - the Holocene

Show actual evidence… preferable biological.
Like when did vocal chords develop… when did the brain change etc etc…