Monday, July 30, 2018

The Gift of Prometheus

From Smithsonian:
Every year, we find more evidence that our hominin cousins the Neanderthals shared commonalities with us; they made jewelry, appreciated beauty, buried their dead and possessed language. In fact, they are, at least partially, us—Neanderthal DNA makes up roughly 2 percent of the genome of people with European and Asian heritage. Now, Sarah Zhang at The Atlantic reports, a new study suggests they even possessed a technology that we believed only our species had mastered—making fire on demand.

Archaeologists have previously come across Neanderthal fire pits, and their ability to make fire-dependent substances like tar indicates that fire was an important part of their lifestyle. However, researchers surmised that the Neanderthals had to rely on natural events like lightning strikes and forest fires to give them Prometheus’ gift, which they then had to painstakingly tend to preserve.

But Andrew Sorensen of Leiden University wasn’t so sure about that conclusion. Ancient humans could make fire on demand by smashing the naturally occurring mineral pyrite against flint, making a small shower of sparks that could be nursed into a larger fire. According to a press release, he wondered if Neanderthals might have possessed that simple technology as well. To investigate, he first collected chunks of flint off beaches in England. When struck right, flint rocks will flake, creating sharp hand-axes known as bifaces, which Neanderthals and early humans used for lots of daily tasks. Sorensen created his own bifaces in the lab, and then used them and pieces of pyrite to produce fire. Then he examined the microscopic marks left on the bifaces by the pyrite, which leave a very distinctive type of mark.

Sorensen and his team compared those with bifaces found at archaeological digs, searching for telltale signs that the flint had been used to start fires. “A hand-axe was the Neanderthal Swiss Army Knife,” he says in the release. “They used them for everything. But only making fire with pyrite would have produced this exact suite of use-wear traces.” (Read more.)

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