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Researchers find evidence that primitive human species used fire

Professor Lee Berger holds a replica of the discovered Homo Naledi fossil inside the Rising Star Cave in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site near Johannesburg, Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021.
The Associated Press/Denis Farrell
Professor Lee Berger holds a replica of the discovered Homo Naledi fossil inside the Rising Star Cave in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site near Johannesburg, Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021.

Remnants of fireplaces found in the Rising Star caves in South Africa suggest homo naledi, a pre-human ancestor, used fire as a tool. 

That’s according to an announcement made during a lecture by professor Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist from University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Berger gave the lecture on Dec. 1 at the Carnegie Institution of Science in Washington. The findings are not yet peer-reviewed. 

Previous research has indicated Neanderthals also used fire, but the new discovery could mean the species was not alone in its ingenuity. 

Homo naledi are an extinct species of hominid that were first discovered in 2013 by Berger and his team. It’s estimated they lived between 200,000 to 300,000 years ago, while Neanderthals lived between 130,000 to 40,000 years ago. 

The new discovery was made in August when researchers excavated a complex cave system in South Africa near Johannesburg. They found soot on the walls and hearths containing burnt animal bones.

The discovery of pieces of burnt bone was made by South African paleoanthropologist Keneiloe Molopyane, the lead investigator. Other caves contained burnt wood, all suggesting homo naledi used fire for light, warmth and cooking. 

“We are fairly confident to formulate the hypothesis that this small-brained hominid, Homo naledi, that existed at the same time we believe Homo sapiens were sharing parts of Africa, was using fire for a variety of purposes,” said Berger. 

Past excavations also revealed the species likely carried out ritualistic burial practices

Berger went on to describe evidence of fire “everywhere within this system.” 

“Everywhere there’s a complex juncture, they built fire. Every adjacent cave system to the chambers where we believe they were disposing of the dead, they built fires and cooked animals. And in the chamber where we believe they were disposing of the dead, they built fire but didn’t cook animals. That’s extraordinary,” he said. 

The team plans to use radiocarbon dating to better understand the age of the fire remains. However, no other hominid remains have been found in the caves apart from those of Homo naledi.

In addition, no previous evidence of controlled fire has been attributed to the species before, due to its small brain size — equivalent to about one-third of modern human brains.

Berger also teased additional announcements from the excavation that are “bigger than fire” on Twitter. 

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