Playing With Fire

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Playing With Fire

Postby toucana on July 20th, 2018, 8:40 pm 

Biface and pyrite used in firemaking - (Andrew Sorenson)

One of the older mysteries in the study of human civilizations is quite how and when our ancestors first learned how to control and create fire. As the Prometheus myth of ancient Greece indicates, the gift of fire was a pivotal moment in the development of the human species.

A new study by Dutch archaeologist Andrew Sorensen from Leiden University attempts to answer this question by addressing the controversies over the remains of fire-pits found in Neanderthal sites whch date back around 50,000 years.

Archaeologists have found evidence of Neanderthal fire pits. They have even found tar that Neanderthals likely made by deliberately heating birch bark. What they have never found are tools that Neanderthals could have used to start fires on demand. Without it, Neanderthals would have needed to collect fire from natural sources such as lightning strikes, which would have required walking long distances to find fuel to keep fires going and enduring cold spells.

Andrew Sorenson believes that the key lies in a common type of Paleolithic flint hand-axe known as a biface which can be made to generate sparks when struck hard with nodules of pyrite. He and his team experimented extensively with replica flint bifaces and pyrites looking for distinctive patterns of microwear caused by firemaking. They then went back and looked for signs of similar microwear in ancient samples preserved in museums. Their results were published in Scientifc Reports

Dennis Sandgathe, an archaeologist at Simon Fraser University is a skeptic of the idea that Neanderthals could start fires, remains unconvinced. His skepticism comes from 40,000-to-100,000-year-old Neanderthal caves that he’s excavated in France. His team has found plenty of evidence of fires during relatively warm periods at these sites, but none in relatively cold periods. He thinks it’s because Neanderthals were collecting fire from lightning strikes, and lightning is more common when it’s warm than when it’s cold.

Sandgathe also says pyrites and stone bifaces should be in the same layer in the archaeological record if they were being used to make fire, but he has never found them together.

Still, he admits, the archaeological record is a patchy one. “It’s a pretty crappy source of data. It’s, unfortunately, the only one we really have,” he says. And this absence of data makes it hard to figure out 50,000-year-old technology—even with all of our modern tools and know-how.

Flint is a common mineral form of quartz (Silicon dioxide SiO2) often found on beaches where chalk cliffs have eroded over time. Pyrite (Iron Sulfide FeS2) is another common mineral also known as ‘Fools Gold’ on account of its pale yellow colour. The name pyrite is from the Greek πυριτεσ (from πυρ meaning fire).

In more recent times from the 16th/17th century onwards, both pyrite and flint have been used in conjunction with pieces of steel to make ignition mechanisms for such firearms as wheel-locks, and flint-locks respectively.

Travellers normally used to carry tinder boxes containing pieces of flint and steel with them to ensure they could seek shelter and light a fire up until the 1830s when friction matches were first invented, and tinder boxes fell out of use.
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