Yesterday we discussed the possibility of cultural evolution (dissemination of a behavior or skill through imitation and learning) in cockatoos, which attracted a lot of attention, probably because of its parallel with human cultural evolution. (The cockatoos seem to have learned to open garbage bins by watching each other.) And in our species there are a gazillion examples, especially since transportation allowed innovations to be spread quickly and widely. You can think of lots of cases: blue jeans, cuisines from other places, music, and, earlier than that, printing, the wheel (some cultures never got it) and even religion.
The new paper in Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. below, however, suggests what may have been the very first behavior that spread though species of Homo (not only H. sapiens, but perhaps Neanderthals, which some consider a different species) through movement of individuals: the use of fire. Click on the screenshot to read the article (free) below, or get the pdf here. The reference is at the bottom.
Fire, of course, has many uses: besides cooking meat and tubers, it can be used to harden wood to make spear points, change the quality of stone to make it easier to flake, and to keep yourself warm. Other uses are given in the Wikipedia article “Control of fire by early humans.”
The MacDonald et al. paper collects evidence of fire use from species of Homo, concluding that it got started about 400,000 to 350,000 years ago and then spread rapidly throughout the species. The rapidity of spread then led them to propose what kind of social structure was present in humans at that time. This contradicts speculations H. erectus controlled the use of fire about 1.5 million years ago; the authors find that evidence unconvincing.
The problem is to distinguish anthropogenic (“human caused”) fire from natural wildfires. But there are ways of doing this, as the article summarizes. Hearths and charred animal bones are one way. Here’s another bit of evidence: a fire-hardened wooden spear from, coincidentally, about 380,000-400,000 years old, part of a group of artifacts found in Germany:
I can’t evaluate the quality of the evidence, but the authors summarize a lot of data to conclude that regular fire use began about 400,000 years ago, and spread quickly throughout the Old World, with evidence coming from Portugal, Spain, France, Israel, and Morocco. Two quotes:
. . . a review by Roebroeks and Villa identified a clear pattern for Europe: there the record strongly suggests that anthropogenic fire use was very rare to nonexistent during the first half of the Middle Pleistocene, as exemplified by the absence—bar a few dispersed charcoal particles—of fire proxies in deeply stratified archaeological karstic sequences, such as the Atapuerca site complex in Spain or the Caune de l’Arago at Tautavel (France), as well as from such prolific open-air sites as Boxgrove in the United Kingdom. In contrast, the record from 400 ka onward is characterized by an increasing number of sites with multiple fire proxies (e.g., charcoal, heated lithics, charred bone, heat-altered sediments) within a primary archaeological context.
. . . The spatiotemporal pattern of the appearance in the archaeological record of an innovation provides evidence relevant for identifying how the innovation came to be widely distributed: that is, through independent innovation, demic processes, cultural diffusion, or genetic processes. The fact that regular fire use appeared relatively quickly across the Old World and in different hominin subpopulations strongly suggests that the behavior diffused or spread from a point of origin rather than that it was repeatedly and independently invented.
Since fire appeared in both warm and cold places around the same time, the authors suggest that its inception was not correlated with “environmental pressures” (e.g., cold). And because the spread was so rapid, the authors claim, correctly, that the spread throughout the Old World was very unlikely to have been caused by the diffusion of genes producing the tendency to create fire, which would spread only very slowly. Likewise, the near-simultaneity makes it seems unlikely that the use of fire was invented independently by several groups.
If fire use did spread through imitation and learning, then, what does that say about the social structure of early humans? If we were divided up into groups of xenophobic hunter-gatherers who didn’t interact, that would not facilitate the spread of fire. Why would a group give the skill to a competitor group? There are two alternatives.
The first, “demic diffusion,” is that a “deme” (a cohesive populations of hominins) spread rapidly, taking with it the fire use they invented. This seems unlikely given that the spread was more rapid than one could imagine a single population could migrate.
The alternative comprises groups that tolerated each other, and were at least somewhat friendly. As the authors suggest, there was a more “fluid social structure with multiple levels of clustering in social networks”. In other words, perhaps hominims were more interactive than we thought.
Well, we have no direct evidence for that, and it would be hard to come by. And I’ll let other physical anthropologists judge the “simultaneous spread” hypothesis. But I wanted to bring this up because the scenario is at least plausible, and it may be the first evidence for cultural evolution in our genus.
There’s one other trait they add in to the mix as another behavior that spread by cultural evolution: the “Levallois technology” for knapping stone (striking flakes off a stone like flint to make weapons and other implements). This, say the authors, can be learned only through “close and prolonged observation combined with active instruction.” Here’s the Levallois method, which involves producing a flint core in such a way that sharp flakes, useful for tools, can be easily struck off:
The authors posit that this technology also originated in one place, but about 100,000 years later than fire (and surely in a different place), and then spread rapidly among groups in a similar way: non-hostile group interactions in a multi-level social network.
I’ll close with the authors’ final paragraph, summarizing their views:
We hypothesize that around 400 ka, cultural processes supported change in technology across wide areas. This indicates, at a minimum, a degree of social tolerance for individuals from different groups, and suggests the less minimal but still plausible hypothesis that more intensive cooperative interactions within larger-scale networks were already in place, occasionally crossing the boundaries between what we usually infer to have been different biological populations within the wider hominin metapopulation. [JAC: I think they’re referring to movement between “modern H. sapiens and Neanderthals. After all, these groups did mate with each other] We conclude that the spatial and temporal pattern of the appearance of regular Middle Pleistocene fire use documented in the archaeological record signals more than the advent of an important tool in the hominin toolbox: the presence of cultural behavior more like that of humans today than of our great ape relatives. We suggest that long before the cultural florescence associated with the late MSA/Middle Pleistocene and to a greater extent LSA/Upper Paleolithic periods, hominins were beginning to develop the capacities for complexity, variability, and widespread diffusion of technology and behavior that we tend to associate only with H. sapiens.
MacDonald, K., F. Scherjon, E. van Veen, K. Vaesen, and W. Roebroeks. 2021. Middle Pleistocene fire use: The first signal of widespread cultural diffusion in human evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118:e2101108118.