Though the ability to make fires is considered one of the great breakthroughs in human civilization, it may have been a more primitive activity than we thought. A new archaeological study has revealed that homo sapiens' ancestors were regularly making fires about 790 thousand years ago. Even by the most conservative estimates, that's least 590 thousand years before our species developed language. An ancient lakeside community by the river Jordan in Israel revealed that proto-humans passed along the secret of creating fire from generation to generation. Israeli archaeologist Nira Alperson-Afil and her team investigated an area where the lake had risen and fallen back a number of times, preserving the ancient hominid camp areas in layers of sediment. After digging down through twelve different layers, they found that camp after camp contained discarded flints that were charred by fire. This strongly suggests that they were using the flints to build fires, rather than simply finding fires in nature and keeping flames alive in little containers ala Quest for Fire. And they were creating fire over generations, too. According to New Scientist:
Because these charred remains exist in all 12 layers of the site, every society must have had access to fire. It's unlikely that all 12 societies would have been lucky enough to find a natural source of fire, says Alperson-Afil, so they must have been able to create it themselves.
What's fascinating about this, aside from the ancient nature of fire-creation, is that somehow these hominids were teaching each other to make fires long before they had the language skills to express why they needed fire. Some anthropologists speculate that complex tool use is what led humans to start experimenting with grammar, and this discovery may help bolster that theory. Proto-Humans Started Making Fires 790 Thousand Years Ago [via New Scientist]