Neanderthals Understood Fire More Than You Might Think

Neanderthals have gotten a bad rap; whenever the hominid species is brought up in conversation, it's almost never for anything positive. In fact, the very word "Neanderthal" has become more-or-less synonymous with "stupid person" — like when President Joe Biden accused Republican governors of "Neanderthal thinking" for choosing to lift mask mandates, per The Guardian.

Imagining Neanderthals as inferior, oafish cave-dwellers is silly; after all, most living humans of Asian or European descent have some Neanderthal genes in their DNA, National Geographic reports. Plus, NatGeo points out that Neanderthals were actually quite advanced in both their use of tools and their culture; Neanderthals were the first human species to create tools from bone, and possibly the first to bury their dead.

Let's focus on Neanderthals' tool use. Perhaps the quintessential "tool" of prehistory is fire; fire can be used to scare off predators, cook food, and produce warmth and light. Well, once we realize that Neanderthals were an intelligent species, it shouldn't surprise us to learn that they — like ancient humans — were able to control fire.

This was confirmed by a study of archaeological sites conducted by researchers Wil Roebroeks and Paola Villa. Per CU Boulder Today, Roebroeks and Villa created a list of 141 possible (but unconfirmed) fireplace sites across Europe; with each, they looked for evidence of habitual fire use. Evidence included charcoal, burned bones, heated stones and sediments, and a few other factors; two or more of these factors were taken as solid evidence of fire use.

Neanderthals likely could control fire as early as 400,000 years ago

CU Boulder Today reports that Roebroeks and Villa considered possible fireplace sites up to 1.2 million years old; hominid species that predate both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens had been living in Europe for at least that long. Of the sites the team considered, the earliest that actually indicated habitual fire use was a Neanderthal fire pit in England dated to roughly 400,000 years ago. Additional evidence (like cooked plant bits between Neanderthals' teeth) indicated that Neanderthals would have used these fires to cook their food. Additionally, Neanderthals likely used fire to help make tools and useful substances — like the gummy adhesive known as "pitch."

If Roebroeks and Villa are correct, this would date Neanderthal control over fire to almost the very beginning of the Neanderthal species; Neanderthals are thought to have emerged around 400,000 to 500,000 years ago, per CU Boulder Today. That said, Roebroeks and Villa were unable to confirm whether Neanderthals knew how to start fires, or simply how to obtain and utilize fires they found naturally. However, a 2018 study published in Nature provided evidence that, by 50,000 years ago, Neanderthals likely were using flint tools to produce their own fires.

But whether it was man-made or man-obtained, the habitual use of fire up to 400,000 years ago — at least 100,000 years before Homo sapiens even existed — is an impressive feat. Perhaps President Biden should issue a formal apology to the Neanderthal community.