Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Neandertal fire-making technology inferred from microwear analysis

Fire use appears to have been relatively common among Neandertals in the Middle Palaeolithic. However, the means by which Neandertals procured their fire—either through the collection of natural fire, or by producing it themselves using tools—is still a matter of debate. We present here the first direct artefactual evidence for regular, systematic fire production by Neandertals. From archaeological layers attributed to late Mousterian industries at multiple sites throughout France, primarily to the Mousterian of Acheulean Tradition (MTA) technoculture (ca. 50,000 years BP), we identify using microwear analysis dozens of late Middle Palaeolithic bifacial tools that exhibit macroscopic and microscopic traces suggesting repeated percussion and/or forceful abrasion with a hard mineral material. Both the locations and nature of the polish and associated striations are comparable to those obtained experimentally by obliquely percussing fragments of pyrite (FeS2) against the flat/convex sides of a biface to make fire. The striations within these discrete use zones are always oriented roughly parallel to the longitudinal axis of the tool, allowing us to rule out taphonomic origins for these traces. We therefore suggest that the occasional use of bifaces as ‘strike-a-lights’ was a technocultural feature shared among the late Neandertals in France.


Most people today are familiar with the concept of striking steel against flint to produce a shower of sparks that fall onto tinder, which begins to smoulder, and when placed into a bundle of dried grass, can be gently blown into flame. Prior to cigarette lighters and wooden matches, the flint-and-steel method was among the most common fire making systems in modern times, originating in the Iron Age1,2,3. Prior to their introduction to metal products by Western colonialists, numerous hunter-gatherer, pastoralist and horticulturalist societies employed the minerals pyrite or marcasite—two very similar species of iron disulphide (FeS2) that are virtually indistinguishable from one another in their nodular or crystal aggregate forms, referred to hereafter simply as pyrite—in place of steel for their fire making needs. Ethnographic accounts describe the flint-and-pyrite (and in some cases, pyrite-on-pyrite) fire making system being employed from Alaska and Canada to Tierra del Fuego in the Americas, and from Australia and Melanesia to Siberia, and only a few instances noted in Africa1,4,5. However, the earliest known instances of percussive fire making extend much deeper into the prehistoric past.
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  • Acknowledgements

    Funding was provided by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (Grant# PGW-13-42) and the Stichting Nederlands Museum voor Anthropologie en Praehistorie (SNMAP). Thanks to J. Airvaux, J. Jaubert, J.-J. Hublin, S. McPherron, E. Ihuel, D. Colonge, M. Brenet, J.-M. Geneste and A. Turq for providing access to the studied materials. Some of the bifaces used in the experiments were produced by D. Pomstra and B. Ginelli. Earlier versions of this article benefitted greatly from revisions provided by W. Roebroeks. A.C.S. and M.S. are grateful for the insightful discussions held with various members of the Leiden Human Origins Group and Material Culture Studies Group.

    Author information


    1. Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, Leiden, The Netherlands

      • A. C. Sorensen
      •  & M. Soressi
    2. INRAP, GSO, Bègles, France

      • E. Claud
    3. UMR 5199 PACEA, Université de Bordeaux, Pessac, France

      • E. Claud


    A.C.S. conceived/designed the study in collaboration with M.S. and E.C., A.C.S. conceptualised and conducted the experiments, A.C.S. and E.C. analysed the results, M.S. provided and analysed archaeological materials, A.C.S. wrote the manuscript with input from E.C. and M.S., A.C.S. prepared the figures, tables and supplementary information, all photographs appearing in the article and the Supplementary Information were taken by A.C.S.

    Competing Interests

    The authors declare no competing interests.

    Corresponding author

    Correspondence to A. C. Sorensen.

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