JUL 14, 2022 12:00 PM PDT

The Oldest Traces of Fire Discovered using AI

WRITTEN BY: Hannah Daniel

Scientists have discovered evidence of fire dating back at least 800,000 years.

Fire has been essential to human evolution, from eliminating bacteria by cooking meat to keeping warm in cold climates. Archaeologists theorize that hominins—humans and extinct related species—have used fire for almost one million years, but there hasn’t been evidence of fire tracing back that far. Traditional methodology has found widespread evidence of fire dating back 200,000 years, but only five sites worldwide have shown evidence of fire used 500,000 years ago.

In a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on June 13, researchers led by Dr. Filipe Natalio and Dr. Ido Azuri of Weizmann Institute of Science presented evidence of perhaps the oldest fire—one that dates back 800,000 years or more. Using a combination of spectroscopy and AI, they analyzed samples from Evron Quarry, an open-air archaeological site located in Western Galilee in Israel.

The first time Natalio and Azuri used this technique, they found evidence that some stone tools had been burned between 200,000 and 420,000 years ago in Evron Quarry. The site was first discovered in the 1970s, and archaeologists found tools dating back 800,000 to one million years old.

The advantage of AI is that it can recognize patterns in the chemical data collected by spectroscopy, Natalio explained in a press release from the Weizmann Institute. Once they had an accurate AI method, they could go “fishing” for signals within 26 stone tools from the site.

They observed that the tools had been heated to a range of temperatures, indicating the use of fire. Additionally, different spectroscopic analysis on 87 animal remains revealed that an extinct elephant tusk showed evidence of structural changes that were likely a result of heating.

This new technique, which does not rely on visual evidence to identify historical traces of fire, opens the door to novel archaeological discoveries that may unearth human evolution secrets. Natalio also pointed out that their groundbreaking discovery would not have been possible without collaboration from disciplines, from quantum chemistry to archaeology and prehistory.

“For me, it’s a demonstration of how scientific research across the humanities and science should work,” he said.

Source: PNAS, Weizmann Institute of Science

About the Author
BS Biology
Hannah Daniel (she/they) is a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, where she received a Bachelor of Science in Biology with an additional minor in Creative Writing. Currently, she works as a reporter for Informa Intelligence's Medtech Insight publication, a business newsletter detailing the latest innovations and regulations in the medical device industry.
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