Researchers believe they may have found the earliest known human ‘home’ in a South African cave, with evidence of domesticity there dating as far back as two million years.
The Canadian-Israeli team found traces of the earliest ever use of fire, at least one million years ago, and of hand tools in the 140-metre-deep Wonderwerk Cave in the southern Kalahari Desert.
The cave has been studied by archaeologists ever since it was first discovered by local farmers in 1940 and has produced a steady stream of archaeological breakthroughs.
In 2009, researchers documented the oldest evidence of non-functional symbolic objects in the form of crystals gathered by early humans.
In a newly-published paper in Quaternary Science Reviews, Ron Shaar, Ari Matmon, Liora Kolska Horwitz, Yael Ebert and Michael Chazan detail evidence of burnt bones, stone tools and soil as well as ash at least 30 metres into the cavemouth.
The researchers don’t believe that this was controlled fire that the inhabitants were able to start themselves. “We don’t have combustion features like at Qesem [a cave in Israel]. We’re talking about a burned patch, not a proper constructed hearth,” Prof Chazan told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz
However, with lightning strikes and wildfires an impossibility that far inside the cave, it means the flames may instead have been “harvested” and brought there by inhabitants.
By analysing the many layers of soil, the team have been able to create a remarkable picture of the evolution of early humans. The record begins with early “Oldowan” tools – simple tools made by chipping stones against each other – and works its way up to million-year-old hand axes.
“What we have here in the cave are milestones of these very dramatic events in human evolution. I can’t think of any other site I know of, certainly not in Sub-Saharan Africa, that has a complete sequence of two million years of human occupation”, Prof Horwitz, the co-director of the Wonderwerk Cave expedition, told the National Post in Canada.
The discovery still leaves many unanswered questions, in particular, what exactly those early inhabitants were using the fire and tools for.
“Now, it’s all about how we can put together a coherent picture of how life changed over this unbelievably immense period of time,” Prof Chazan told the Post. “We don’t understand their lives by a long shot. There are so many questions – far more than answers – but by working and collaborating together we’re able to make a step forward.”