The emergence of a more systematic use of fire is generally associated with Homo erectus around 400,000 years ago. Some claim that from this point onwards a generalised use of fire occurs, while others stress the proportional low number of sites with actual traces of fire between 300,000 and 130,000 years ago (MIS 8-6). A recent paper by Hérisson and colleagues in L’Antropologie wants to test these theories by having a closer look at the archaeological record from northwest Europe. For the MIS 8-6 time period up-to-now only 7 sites with unambiguous fire use were attested (e.g. La Cotte de St Brelade and Maastricht-Belvédère). This paper reports on two new sites that can be added to this list, Biache-Saint-Vaast and Therdonne, both in Northern France.
The paper gives a detailed account of the contexts of these two sites, assessing the use of fire through the proportion of burnt bones, burnt lithics and the presence of charcoal. They also conducted experimental work to assess the effect of hearths on the site sediments. Moreover, they have a detailed look at the spatial distribution of the burnt remains and conduct chemical analysis to try and identify organic residues. Combined, these different types of analysis provide new insights into the use of fire among early Neanderthals.
For example at Therdonne, a series of five small fire places could be identified. There are no traces of any structures to confine the fire. It seems like wood, and not bones, were used as fuel and residues point toward the cooking of bovid meat but also potentially fish. The authors also stress how taphonomy, excavation methods and site type can have an important effect on the recognition of fire at these early sites. Overall, they conclude that this new detailed evidence from northern France indicates a non-systematic but frequent use of fire among early Neanderthals.
Full reference: David Hérisson, Jean-Luc Locht, Patrick Auguste, Alain Tuffreau. 2013. Néandertal et le feu au Paléolithique moyen ancien. Tour d’horizon des traces de son utilisation dans le Nord de la France. L’Anthropologie, Available online 15 November 2013.