Today, the prevalence of matches and pocket lighters makes starting a fire a simple task. Determining just when humans first gained control over fire, however, is far from easy. New findings published today in the journal Science add further insight to the discussion. According to the report, evidence uncovered in Israel indicates that ancient humans could control fire nearly 800,000 years ago.

Naama Goren-Inbar of Hebrew University and her colleagues discovered burned fragments of flint, wood, fruit and grains at the Gesher Benot Yaaqov bridge site in Israels Hula Valley, which dates to 790,000 years ago. Large quantities of unburned flint and wood also dotted the site. The researchers painstakingly mapped the distribution of the tens of thousands of specimens they found and determined that the burned relics clustered together at specific spots, indicating that the sites inhabitants were in control of what was burned and where. In addition, only about 2 percent of the flint and 4 percent of the wood samples had been burned. A natural fire, the authors note, would most likely have charred a larger portion of the remains. The new find pushes back the initial date of human exploitation of fire by a quarter of a million years (several sites in Europe suggest that the practice was occurring 500,000 years ago).

The identity of the fire-making inhabitants of the Israeli locale remains unclear, however. According to the report, the proposed fire users may have been Homo erectus, Homo ergaster or archaic Homo sapiens, but it is impossible to associate a particular hominin species with the Hula valley site. Nevertheless, the authors conclude that "the domestication of fire by hominins surely led to dramatic changes in behavior connected with diet, defense and social interaction."