60-Second Science

Oldest Known Hearth Unearthed in Israel

Archaeologists report the discovery of a 300,000-year-old hearth, the most ancient one known, for making and using fire. Cynthia Graber reports


Early humans began using fire about a million years ago. But it’s been unclear when we began to control fire for our use, a key advance in the development of culture and civilization.

Now, archaeologists report the discovery of the most ancient known hearth for making and using fire. The hearth appears to be 300,000 years old.

Scientists found evidence of wood ash in the center of Qesem Cave in Israel. They removed a chunk of sediment and hardened it in the lab, so they could slice layers and evaluate them under the microscope.

They found burnt bones, flint, wood ash and bits of burnt clay. There’s charred flint and animal bones near the hearth, along with flint tools further away used for activities such as butchering. The research is in the Journal of Archaeological Science. [R. Shahack-Gross et al., Evidence for the repeated use of a central hearth at Middle Pleistocene (300 ky ago) Qesem Cave, Israel]

The investigators say the large hearth was used repeatedly over time for a large group of people. Its centralized location and division of labor areas suggests social structure and spatial planning.

The finding helps delineate a turning point in human social and cognitive development. This and other such hearths were crucibles that helped forge modern humanity—and eventually us.

—Cynthia Graber

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.] 

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