New Find Prompts Controversy Over Whether Pre-Humans Used Fire

Paleoanthropologist and National Geographic Explorer Lee Berger announced on Dec. 5 the discovery of charcoal, soot, fire rings, and burned animal bones in the Rising Star cave system in South Africa. The discovery is important because the Rising Star cave also plays home to the bones of an early human relative called Homo naledi.

Are the fire remnants and H. naledi remains linked? Berger believes they are. If his theory proves valid, it could upend the current understanding of human evolution as it pertains to fire. It would mean an early human relative with a brain the size of an orange was able to harness and use fire for cooking and light.

Berger’s colleagues have not subjected his findings to peer review, though. According to an interview with the Washington Post, that process is underway.

“There are a series of major discoveries coming out over the next month,” Berger, a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, told the Post.

Berger, an accomplished scientist and cave explorer, has faced accusations of focusing more on showmanship than a rigorous scientific process. He made his announcement at a Carnegie Science lecture at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington D.C.


You can watch the hour-long lecture here.

A ‘long history of claims’ that earlier humans used fire

Exploring the fire remnants in the Rising Star cave system required the kind of claustrophobic wriggling most people shy away from. But Berger has a long history of cave exploration and research in that region of South Africa, known as the Cradle of Humankind. According to the Post, Berger lost 55 pounds in an effort to access certain chambers to do his research.

Not everyone appreciates Berger’s tendency toward the aggressive promotion of his work.

“There’s a long history of claims about the use of fire in South African caves,” Tim D. White, director of the Human Evolution Research Center at the University of California at Berkeley, told the Post. “Any claim about the presence of controlled fire is going to be received rather skeptically if it comes via press release as opposed to data.”


Unanswered questions

White went on to say that major unanswered questions surround the possible link between the H. naledi fossils and the fire remnants. He pointed out the lack of conclusive dating. The stone tools that scientists usually find with evidence of fire were also absent. Finally, White asserted that there’s no evidence the fire was used in a deliberate manner.

“Fires don’t spontaneously start 250m into a wet cave,” Berger shot back in his lecture. “And animals don’t just wander into the fires and get burned.”

It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out once peer-reviewed papers hit the scientific community. One thing is certain: Time and the elements make studying our distant past an act of constant revision.

Andrew Marshall

Andrew Marshall is an award-winning painter, photographer, and freelance writer. Andrew’s essays, illustrations, photographs, and poems can be found scattered across the web and in a variety of extremely low-paying literary journals.
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