Planet Earth

A Fireplace in France

By Joshua FischmanJan 1, 1996 6:00 AM


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While evidence for early human occupation mounted in Spain, farther to the north, on the windblown coast of western France, there appeared hints of another surprisingly early European arrival: fire. In a gully in southern Brittany, anthropologist Jean-Laurent Monnier of the University of Rennes found what he believes is an ancient fire pit, tentatively dated as being nearly 500,000 years old, along with some simple stone tools. Conventionally, the first controlled use of fire is thought to have taken place only some 200,000 years ago.

That more recent date at least makes narrative sense: it credits the invention of fireplaces to Homo sapiens, those technological wizards who also came up with sophisticated weapons and tools. But Monnier’s find raises the possibility that fire was tamed not by clever sapiens but by a predecessor, perhaps one closer to Homo erectus, our conservative ancestor who spent millions of years knocking simple flakes off rocks.

There are many fireplaces since 200,000 years ago,’’ says Monnier. But earlier fireplaces have been less certain.’’ The difficulty has been to distinguish a fire pit from a natural fire, and charred areas at older sites such as Zhoukoudian in China and V´ertessz¨oll¨os in Hungary could have been either.

Monnier’s site, in a cave called Menez-Dregan, seems a safer bet. It has a deep concentration of charcoal and burned bones, he says, indicating repeated use over a long time. But the dates still have to be nailed down. This past year, Monnier’s team used a technique called electron spin resonance to date burned quartz from Menez-Dregan. The technique relies on the fact that normal radioactivity in the quartz is always knocking electrons out of their normal orbits and allowing some to become trapped within impurities in the crystal. When the quartz is heated, though, the trapped electrons return to their atomic orbits. So by counting the number of trapped electrons that had accumulated, the French researchers could measure how much time had elapsed since the quartz was burned by our early ancestors. The elapsed time they got was some 465,000 years. The team is now trying to confirm this date with other techniques.

But what Monnier would really like to puzzle out are the simple tools found at the site. They are cruder than other tools of similar age-- they are mainly choppers with irregular cutting edges--leading Monnier to wonder why creatures who may have tamed fire couldn’t refine their industrial methods as well.

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