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Neanderthal man knew how to make fire


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PARIS – Neanderthal man knew how to make a fire by striking stone to create sparks, researchers said Thursday after analyzing several tools found at sites in France dating from 50,000 years ago.

It was already known that Neanderthals used fire but it was mostly thought to have occurred by natural causes such as lightning or volcanic eruptions, although perhaps they did know techniques for creating a flame.

The latter is what scientists of a study published in Scientific Reports have claimed.

“We present here the first direct artefactual evidence for regular, systematic fire production by Neanderthals,” they wrote in the study.

“We found the lighters that Neanderthal man used to make a fire,” Marie Soressi, professor of prehistory at Leiden University in the Netherlands and co-author of the study, told AFP.

The researchers found dozens of flint with traces on the two faces of the prehistoric stone tool, or biface. They appear to indicate that the tool could have been used to strike at a ferrous mineral such as pyrite or marcasite.

Piercing the pyrite would produce sparks that Neanderthal man could make fall on dry grass or leaves and blow on them to get a fire going.

Andrew Sorensen, also from Leiden University and the lead author of the study, says the scientists know the traces on the stone tools were not natural, but instead made by these primitive men living in Europe in late Palaeolithic times.

“The traces we see occur in discrete zones, with the striations almost always oriented parallel to the long axis of the tool. If the scratches were natural, we would expect them to occur all over the surface of the biface and to be oriented randomly,” he told AFP in an email.

“The fire making traces appear with the naked eye as clusters of C-shaped percussion marksn… often indicating unidirectional, oblique (glancing) blows (ideal for fire making),” he wrote.  https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2018/07/20/world/science-health-world/neanderthal-man-knew-make-fire-study-stone-tools-50000-years-old-indicates/

 

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It's interesting, but far from conclusive.

I used to bang rocks together as a kid. Occasionally you would get sparks, and they made a great noise, and would spring apart in your hands. Also, you can get a smell of burning from it, which is nice to sniff. I had no intention of lighting a fire with them, and the sparks were so small, it would have been impossible. But if someone found those stones years later, they might well think I had been lighting fires with them.

Iron pyrites and flints do often occur in the same location, so it wouldn't be surprising if people did the same thing, 50,000 years ago. You would get better sparks with iron pyrites than I did with found cobbles, which would have looked pretty impressive in the dark, and that in itself could make it a party trick for some Neanderthals. But it still doesn't mean they could light a fire with it.

It is actually possible, to light a fire with flint and pyrites, but it requires more than just a flint and a pyrites stone. You need special knowledge, of what kind of tinder you can successfully light, with such a tiny spark, and how to grow that initial glow into a flame. Even for modern survivalists, it's a challenge, but it can be done. You need a certain kind of dried fungus, to catch the spark and grow it. I have my doubts if Neanderthals could have pulled it off. You certainly would never light dried grass, or the normal fire starting ingredients with it. 

Here's how a modern expert does it, but bear in mind, he has modern knowledge about tinder that Neanderthals would not have had :

 

 

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5 minutes ago, mistermack said:

It's interesting, but far from conclusive.

I used to bang rocks together as a kid. Occasionally you would get sparks, and they made a great noise, and would spring apart in your hands. Also, you can get a smell of burning from it, which is nice to sniff. I had no intention of lighting a fire with them, and the sparks were so small, it would have been impossible. But if someone found those stones years later, they might well think I had been lighting fires with them.

Iron pyrites and flints do often occur in the same location, so it wouldn't be surprising if people did the same thing, 50,000 years ago. You would get better sparks with iron pyrites than I did with found cobbles, which would have looked pretty impressive in the dark, and that in itself could make it a party trick for some Neanderthals. But it still doesn't mean they could light a fire with it.

It is actually possible, to light a fire with flint and pyrites, but it requires more than just a flint and a pyrites stone. You need special knowledge, of what kind of tinder you can successfully light, with such a tiny spark, and how to grow that initial glow into a flame. Even for modern survivalists, it's a challenge, but it can be done. You need a certain kind of dried fungus, to catch the spark and grow it. I have my doubts if Neanderthals could have pulled it off. You certainly would never light dried grass, or the normal fire starting ingredients with it. 

Here's how a modern expert does it, but bear in mind, he has modern knowledge about tinder that Neanderthals would not have had :

 

 

But did your stones show a consistent, singular direction of striking and along the optimal part of the tools/stones?

The Silver Birch's silvery bark skin is pretty flammable when shredded and extremely common.

Edited by StringJunky
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4 minutes ago, StringJunky said:

But did your stones show a consistent, singular direction of striking and along the optimal part of the tools/stones?

No, but we were really just doing it to make a noise, as much as anything. You could only notice the odd spark if it was dark, so we weren't really doing it to make sparks. It was fascinating though, to see that you could produce a spark from a stone, in the dark. The best effect was got if you took a good sized cobble, and threw it at a shallow angle against a brick wall. (there was a railway arch where we used to play).

You could get a trail of sparks if you threw it hard enough at the right angle.

Since Neanderthals would have been knapping flint, it would be inevitable that they would notice sparks, if they did it in the dark using a pyrites hammer stone. That in itself would be a pretty impressive party trick back then. Whether they could take it any further, and actually light a fire, we will probably never know. The survival guy makes it look easy. But lots of things are easy, once you know how.

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10 minutes ago, mistermack said:

No, but we were really just doing it to make a noise, as much as anything. You could only notice the odd spark if it was dark, so we weren't really doing it to make sparks. It was fascinating though, to see that you could produce a spark from a stone, in the dark. The best effect was got if you took a good sized cobble, and threw it at a shallow angle against a brick wall. (there was a railway arch where we used to play).

You could get a trail of sparks if you threw it hard enough at the right angle.

Since Neanderthals would have been knapping flint, it would be inevitable that they would notice sparks, if they did it in the dark using a pyrites hammer stone. That in itself would be a pretty impressive party trick back then. Whether they could take it any further, and actually light a fire, we will probably never know. The survival guy makes it look easy. But lots of things are easy, once you know how.

But the discovery does support the emerging idea that they  likely weren't as thick as people presumed. Even if it just shows consistent efforts of them trying to make it. That was my main motive for posting.

Edited by StringJunky
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2 minutes ago, StringJunky said:

But the discovery does support the emerging idea that they  likely weren't as thick as people presumed. Even if it just shows consistent efforts of them trying to make it. That was my main motive for posting.

I don't wan't to give the impression I'm sure one way or the other. I'm just playing devil's advocate really. Birch works ok for sparks from a ferrocerium rod. They are brilliant things, you can light paper or grass directly with them, I have several. A firesteel struck with a flint might just light birch if you got it really really dry, and roughed it up. But you wouldn't stand a chance with the sparks off stone. 

This has bugged me now, I'm going to have to get some flint and pyrites and try it out. I have tried most firelighting methods but not that. The problem generally is getting your tinder dry enough. Easy enough at home, but out in nature, everything gets damp, without central heating and plastic boxes. Getting a fire going in winter, from a spark off a flint and pyrites stone, would I think be a pretty daunting task. 

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58 minutes ago, mistermack said:

I don't wan't to give the impression I'm sure one way or the other. I'm just playing devil's advocate really. Birch works ok for sparks from a ferrocerium rod. They are brilliant things, you can light paper or grass directly with them, I have several. A firesteel struck with a flint might just light birch if you got it really really dry, and roughed it up. But you wouldn't stand a chance with the sparks off stone. 

This has bugged me now, I'm going to have to get some flint and pyrites and try it out. I have tried most firelighting methods but not that. The problem generally is getting your tinder dry enough. Easy enough at home, but out in nature, everything gets damp, without central heating and plastic boxes. Getting a fire going in winter, from a spark off a flint and pyrites stone, would I think be a pretty daunting task. 

You clearly know more about the practicalities than I do. What about natural cotton type stuff, or fur even or hair. This is in France.

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1 hour ago, StringJunky said:

You clearly know more about the practicalities than I do. What about natural cotton type stuff, or fur even or hair. This is in France.

From my own csmping experience I do know that even in the coldest and dampest weather you can get anything dry enough for spark lighting if you've already got a fire going. Keeping it dry enough for prolonged periods I'm not sure, since processing leather requires some advanced technology and logistics, and roughhide isn't particularly good at insulating things from moisture. You could however carve out a wooden container to keep tinderlike stuff dry for a few days, and this should be able with mesolithic tools. The mesolithic period however begins well after the absorption of Neanderthals into the Sapien line (I am loathe to say extinction because of the significant levels of Neanderthal-specific genetic markers in Humans outside of Africa)

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7 hours ago, StringJunky said:

You clearly know more about the practicalities than I do. What about natural cotton type stuff, or fur even or hair. This is in France.

The two types of fungus are far and away the best for catching a weak spark, there's not really anything natural that gets close to them. Cotton will work as well, if it's charred beforehand. Cotton balls will light from a good strong spark.

I just read that Otzi the iceman was found to be carrying the same kit that the guy in the video used. Horse head fungus, flint and pyrite for sparks, and various plants for kindling, a full kit. Which is encouraging, but of course he was a modern man, with a copper axe and a bow and arrows etc, from 5,000 years ago, when some building at Stonehenge was already established. A much more modern era.

It does show that it was possible to keep stuff dry enough to use though, although the fact that he carried it all with him indicates that it would not be all that easy to gather suitable dry stuff just when you needed it.

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11 minutes ago, mistermack said:

The two types of fungus are far and away the best for catching a weak spark, there's not really anything natural that gets close to them. Cotton will work as well, if it's charred beforehand. Cotton balls will light from a good strong spark.

I just read that Otzi the iceman was found to be carrying the same kit that the guy in the video used. Horse head fungus, flint and pyrite for sparks, and various plants for kindling, a full kit. Which is encouraging, but of course he was a modern man, with a copper axe and a bow and arrows etc, from 5,000 years ago, when some building at Stonehenge was already established. A much more modern era.

It does show that it was possible to keep stuff dry enough to use though, although the fact that he carried it all with him indicates that it would not be all that easy to gather suitable dry stuff just when you needed it.

Interesting. Otzi was a good find. Have you tried Gorse?

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15 minutes ago, StringJunky said:

Interesting. Otzi was a good find. Have you tried Gorse?

No, I haven't. Wild clematis (old man's beard) always looked promising too, but I haven't tried that either. I focused on what I could carry, to get a fire going in any conditions. The ferrocerium rod is a fabulous bit of kit. You can pick it up out of a puddle, wipe it, and it will give you big fat hot sparks that will light dry grass directly. And charred cotton cloth will catch brilliantly, so long as it's dry. 

For all weather, a combination of ferrocerium rod, piece of cloth or paper, and tiny spot of petrol will light a fire in virtually any circumstances. :) 

I think I'm going to have a go with pyrites now though, it's a challenge. 

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1 hour ago, mistermack said:

No, I haven't. Wild clematis (old man's beard) always looked promising too, but I haven't tried that either. I focused on what I could carry, to get a fire going in any conditions. The ferrocerium rod is a fabulous bit of kit. You can pick it up out of a puddle, wipe it, and it will give you big fat hot sparks that will light dry grass directly. And charred cotton cloth will catch brilliantly, so long as it's dry. 

For all weather, a combination of ferrocerium rod, piece of cloth or paper, and tiny spot of petrol will light a fire in virtually any circumstances. :) 

I think I'm going to have a go with pyrites now though, it's a challenge. 

I understand gorse has flammable materials as a survival advantage. It has roots deep in the ground to survive its own bushfire and destroys all surrounding competitors. I think IIRC they have immortal cells. Rejuvenating kamikazi plant! :D 

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5 hours ago, mistermack said:

I just read that Otzi the iceman was found to be carrying the same kit that the guy in the video used.

Apparently, he also had another type of fungus that you can peel the skin off in strips to use like sticking plasters: it sticks to itself so you can wrap it round your finger, for example, to create a sterile sealed covering. And I think it has antibacterial properties as well.

4 hours ago, StringJunky said:

I understand gorse has flammable materials as a survival advantage.

I seem to remember that giant redwoods have fireproof bark and need to experience a forest fire before they can set seed. (Given how long they live, they have plenty of opportunities.) It make sense in evolutionary terms, because it clears away competing plants and provides a nice fertile base for the seeds to grow. (The seeds also need to be frozen during winter before they can germinate. Life is so complicated when you are a tree.)

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7 minutes ago, Strange said:

I seem to remember that giant redwoods have fireproof bark and need to experience a forest fire before they can set seed. (Given how long they live, they have plenty of opportunities.) It make sense in evolutionary terms, because it clears away competing plants and provides a nice fertile base for the seeds to grow. (The seeds also need to be frozen during winter before they can germinate. Life is so complicated when you are a tree.)

Clever innit? :) It intrigues me, from randomness we see the evolution of strategies.

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Evidence shows that Neanderthal had a larger brain than we do. see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brain_size

I like to do the next step and speculate that Neanderthals were more intelligent that we are. They lived intelligently in perfect harmony with their environment, they didn't practice war, they had no need to develop technology in order to live and be happy. They gathered their food and discuss philosophy & mathematics without the need to write it down, so intelligent they were.

Eventually, some degenerated naked & stupid underneanderthals appeared and , wrong move, intelligent Neanderthal learned them how to make fire to survive. Neanderthal also learned them how to make clothes instead of killing Neanderthals to get their fur. Eventually they learned them how to cultivate the earth and get food without wandering the whole planet killing Neanderthals everywhere. 

Something like that.

Edited by michel123456
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1 hour ago, michel123456 said:

I like to do the next step and speculate that Neanderthals were more intelligent that we are. They lived intelligently in perfect harmony with their environment, they didn't practice war, they had no need to develop technology in order to live and be happy. They gathered their food and discuss philosophy & mathematics without the need to write it down, so intelligent they were.

Meanwhile the unicorn dance orchestra played and pigs flew across the sky.

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Does bug me that with at least four different methods available to them, we think they were dependent on natural occurrences of fire. Tool production(drilling, sharpening) or boredom, could have easily led to the basic discovery.

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24 minutes ago, Endy0816 said:

Does bug me that with at least four different methods available to them, we think they were dependent on natural occurrences of fire. Tool production(drilling, sharpening) or boredom, could have easily led to the basic discovery.

No, it really couldn't. It takes a lot of skill and knowledge to produce fire from naturally occurring materials. If you don't have those skills, you will NEVER get a fire going by accident. 

Here's Ray Mears, talking about the flint/pyrite method. It's clear when these experts do it, that they would stand no chance without the dried fungus. What he says about the strength of the spark is instructive :

I like the way he talks about the smell as well, it's just how I remember it from when I were a lad.

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They probably just kept at it, repeatedly trying to create more of the heat or sparks that they were already seeing.

Like they might have had reason to drill a hole in wood with another stick. Inadvertently they create heat via friction which they slowly and over much time trial and error into fire making.

 

I figure jellyfish lens is crazy improbable historically(least involved though) and a fire piston would take tools and skill to produce. So yeah, earliest manmade means was probably one of the other two.

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Here's my best guess of the process of learning how to start a fire over historical time.

Firstly, the use of fire from lightning strikes. Probably goes back two million years or more and would have been by Homo Erectus and their forerenners. 
Then there is the learning how to keep fires going over long periods which would have been a gradual process of gaining experience.
Then there is learning how to move fire, by carrying smouldering timber over a distance, and getting a new fire going where you want it. 
To move it a long way, you could make a number of new fires along the way, to get fresh embers as the old ones gradually died down.

Then would come keeping a permanent fire going, in a cave or settlement. I reckon the caves were great for that. 
Here is some pretty certain evidence, dating back to Homo Erectus more than 800,000 years ago, in a cave in South Africa.
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-17598738

Then you might have hunting parties travelling for days, and wanting to carry fire with them, for a night camp fire. 
They would have experimented with various ways of carrying smouldering stuff with them, and conveniently, the horse hoof fungus, and King Alfred's cake, will smoulder for a very long time without going out, and would have been one of the best materials for that. 
I think that carrying embers would have been the first use of those fungi, rather than flint/pyrite firelighting.

When it comes to making sparks, I know from my own experience that that is easy to discover, having done it myself in my early teens with round cobbles lying around in ploughed fields where I lived. You would only get weak sparks, that you could only see in the dark, or twilight, but if I did it, I'm sure Neanderthals would have done it and noticed the same thing. And, in the process of flint knapping, you would notice that flint on pyrite stones produced the best sparks. Still very small and weak, but more of them than random rocks.

Eventually, if someone was showing off making sparks, and one landed on some fungus material that was lying about, a spark would take, and the connection would have been made. Once that connection was made, it could be repeated, and the method could be refined.

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