A quest for Palaeolithic fire starters: a new methodological framework to identify strike-a-lights

The use of fire is generally seen as an important step in human evolution. However, physical evidence for early fire use is very sporadic. In Europe, traces of habitual fire use do not occur until about 400,000 to 300,000 years ago. Furthermore, a distinction needs to be made between fire users and actual fire producers. This leads to the question, how can we identify the actual production of fire in Palaeolithic contexts? A new study published in JAS tackles this question by trying to establish a new methodology to identify lithics used as strike-a-lights.

The paper provides a nice background to the topic, firstly discussing the ethnographic data on fire production by hunter-gatherers. Two main techniques are used in these contexts, wood-on-wood friction and stone-on-stone percussion or friction. Due to preservational issues, for the Palaeolithic record we are constricted to the latter. Secondly, the existing archaeological evidence from Upper (UP) and Middle Palaeolithic (MP) contexts is discussed. Few Palaeolithic artefacts have been listed as possible strike-a-lights, the best MP example being a Mousterian point from Bettencourt (France). Sulphuric iron fragments (like pyrite) are also uncommon, a rare example being a nodule from La Cotte a la Chevre (Jersey). This led the authors to question if we are actually currently able to recognise these artefacts in the Palaeolithic record.

The authors stipulate that the earliest fire-starting tools were ad-hoc in nature and should be identified based on their use-wear patterns rather than on their morphology. Basically any flint fragment could be suitable to the task of fire making. Subsequently, they conducted a series of experiments and these indicate that even the short use of a tool in fire-starting tasks provides a distinct use-wear pattern. Macro traces relates to the rounding and crushing of the artefact, while micro-wear is identified through packed clusters of parallel striations. In a next step, 21,500 artefacts from MIS 8 to MIS-3 were analysed for these wear traces. Immediately it became apparent how preservation played a key role in the identification of these traces. Currently, the results from the limited data set are negative, but it is hoped that with the establishment of this new methodological framework, future analysis of well-preserved open-air sites, together with new discoveries, will provide glimpses into fire production behavior of past hominins. So have a good look at the images of the wear patterns in this paper and keep them in mind next them you analyse a lithic assemblage!

Full reference: Andrew Sorensen,Wil Roebroeks, Annelou van Gijn. in press. Fire production in the deep past? The expedient strike-a-light model. Journal of Archaeological Science, Available online 12 December 2013.

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