The Japan Times, July 11, 1998
Study casts doubt whether Peking man used fire
WASHINGTON (Reuters) Since the early 1930s scientists believed a cave in China rich with fossil remains was the place where humans first controlled fire as long as 500,000 years ago.
But a new chemical analysis challenges this view and concludes Peking man did not actually conquer fire in the cave, which is located in the southwestern suburbs of Beijing in Zhoukoudian, researchers said Thursday.
"This site doesn't prove the use of fire," said Clark Howell, a paleontologist at the University of California at Berkeley, who did not work on the study but who is familiar with the cave. "There was certainly no burning in the cave itself."
In the study, published in the journal Science, a team of researchers said a lack of ash and charcoal remains at the cave was proof that early Peking man did not use fire.
"No ash or charcoal remnants could be detected," the researchers, headed by Steve Weiner from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, wrote. "Hence, although indirect evidence for burning is present, there is no direct evidence for in situ burning."
Many scientists had pointed to the presence of burned animal bones and stone tools at the cave, dated to between 200,000 and 500,000 years ago, as evidence the early cave dwellers could control fire.
But these fossil remains do not necessarily mean early humans killed and cooked animals, the researchers, a team of experts from Israel, the United States and China, concluded.
"The co-occurrence of burned black bones and quartzite (stone) artifacts is only suggestive of a cultural association and hence of the use of fire by humans, but does not prove it," they wrote.
The researchers also said they doubted early humans really used a hearth in the cave. The researchers said it was possible that at one time the cave was more open to the air and that pools of water formed inside, wearing out the rounded bowls that earlier researchers said were hearths.
Water running off a slope could have washed the bones into the cave as it filled in over time, Howell added.
"There is no question the sediments themselves indicate a situation involving water," Howell said in a telephone interview.
Natural forest fires could also have blackened the bones found in the cave, he added.
"This had nothing to do with people having a picnic and roasting animal bones in a fire," Howell said.
Knowing the date when humans first knew how to use fire tells scientists one aspect of culture and gives a more complete understanding of the earth's early inhabitants, Howell added.
Fire was important for early humans because it allowed them to survive in higher latitudes by offering protection against large animals and providing warmth and nutrition, the researchers added.
"That is really a major step forward," Howell said. "It tells us about prehistoric people and how they adapted to their environment."
Peking man is an example of Homo erectus, a precursor of modern humans that died out by 100,000 years ago.