European archaeologists have been able for the first time to establish a first direct proof of the ability of Neanderthals to produce fire by striking stones.To reach that proof, archaeologist Andrew Sorensen and his colleagues at Leiden University in the Netherlands analyzed several tools dating back 50,000 years from sites in France.
The use of fire was relatively common among Neanderthal men in the Paleolithic, but the means by which they obtained it remained uncertain and were debated. The general idea was that Neanderthals did not make their own fire, but depended on natural embers caused by lightning. “They would have picked up burning sticks to light their own fire, which they let burn at all times by taking them with them when they moved,” says Sorensen.
However, this theory does not stick to reality, says the researcher. “We are bringing the first direct material proof of a regular and systematic fire production by the Neanderthals.”
Indeed, the archaeologists have found “prehistoric lighters” that were used by Neanderthals to produce fire. These dozens of flint cut on both sides bear traces that seem to indicate that they were used to strike a ferrous ore such as pyrite or marcasite.
One of the techniques to start a fire is to hit a flint rock against pyrite. Small sparks occur, which are used to create flames with dry leaves. “To the naked eye, we see traces of C-shaped percussion, which allow us to deduce the angle and direction with which the flint hit the pyrite,” says Andrew Sorensen.
Under the microscope, the team also discovered streaks and a special wear polish. The discovery of dozens of bifaces bearing these traces shows that it was “a technology widespread among Neanderthals in this region about 50,000 years ago,” said Andrew Sorensen.
The archaeologist agrees, however, that his analysis of the traces “remains an interpretation”. “I’m sure the debate” around Neanderthal’s ability to fire will “continue”.