The manipulation of fire led to dramatic changes in hominin behavior. Fire offers warmth and would have enabled hominins to extend their habitat to colder regions (either at higher altitudes or higher latitudes). Fire provides light at night or in caves; it can be used as protection against predators; it can be used in hunting to control animal movements; it is useful for making tools out of wood and some types of stones that are best when hardened by heat; it also offers a way to detoxify and soften foods (both plant and animal) through cooking.
Archaeological evidence for fire includes ash accumulations and burnt soil, rocks, bones, wood, charcoal, or other artifacts. Discoloration and chemical and structural changes of these materials are indicative of burning and the atomic changes that occur after superheating objects can be traced using thermoluminescence.
The earliest evidence for controlled fire is found at Gesher Benot Ya'aqov, a site in Israel that dates to 790 Kya. It has Acheulean tools, burned flint artifacts, charcoal fragments, burned wood, fruits, and grains. The H. erectus site of Zhoukoudian, China, also has a preserved hearth dating to about 500 Kya as does the H. erectus/Archaic kill site of Terra Amata, France, at about 380 Kya.
Short-term campfire signatures (bowl-shaped soils) have been discovered at much earlier sites, like Koobi Fora (1.6 Mya) and Chesowanja (1.4 Mya), Kenya. There are also some burnt bones at Swartkrans cave in South Africa from about 1.5 Mya. But these more ancient sites have not yet been confirmed as sites with controlled fire.
Once it is established that there is indeed evidence for fire, it is difficult to distinguish between its natural existence and human control of it. High temperatures caused by concentration of a fire at a hearth exceed those for natural fires that sweep across a landscape. Then whether or not humans opportunistically controlled fire (taken from a naturally occurring source) or they sparked the fire intentionally has so far proven impossible to tell. The latter implies a level of sophistication that is "human" while the first does not. Although, the opportunistic use of fire is a large step ahead of apes, no matter how it was obtained. Controlled fire and the use of hearths at home bases and living sites clearly became popular by the time Archaics were the focal point of hominin evolution.
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