A New Study Suggests That Neanderthals Were Adept At Creating Fires With Their Stone Tools

New research shows that Neanderthals may have been fully capable of producing fires by using their hand axes and pyrite.

A new study suggests Neanderthals could start fires.
Laurent Cipriani / AP Images

New research shows that Neanderthals may have been fully capable of producing fires by using their hand axes and pyrite.

As it turns out, a new study has suggested that early humans probably weren’t the only branch of hominids who knew how to create fires. Research now shows that Neanderthals may also have been starting their own fires 50,000 years ago.

As Phys.org report, the hand-axes that were so commonly used by Neanderthals may also have been used to produce deliberate sparks when struck against pyrite. Scientists were already well aware that Neanderthals were certainly adept at controlling fires and using it for their own purposes. However, there had been no evidence that they were actually able to start these fires themselves, as Leiden University’s Andrew Sorensen has explained.

“There is an ongoing debate in the world of early fire research as to whether Neanderthals could make fire for themselves, or if they were reliant on natural sources like wildfires started by lightning strikes from which they could collect fire later.”

When ancient humans needed to create a fire, they often struck pyrite on flint to create a spark, although steel was frequently useful when struck against flint as well. Once a spark was successfully struck into available tinder, such as dried grass, the fire maker would blow on the material until it turned into a steady flame. It is Sorensen’s theory that Neanderthals may well have done something very similar.

In order to test his theory, Andrew Sorensen used a replica of a Neanderthal hand-ax and struck it against pyrite to create sparks. After he had done this, he took the replica of the ax and compared it with original Neanderthal hand axes that had been discovered all over France which date back 50,000 years.

Hand-axes were extremely useful to Neanderthals and were carried around with them everywhere, much like a modern Swiss army knife would be today. These stone tools could be used to kill and skin animals and were also frequently used to crush minerals into useful powders.

While Sorensen noted that striking one of these hand axes against pyrite did indeed create sparks, the results of this act could vary on different occasions.

“Some strikes produced only one spark, others produced showers of up to 10 sparks or so.”

He also found that the marks that were left behind on the replica of the Neanderthal hand-ax he was using after he created a fire were extremely similar to those that were discovered on authentic Neanderthal hand-axes.

However, merely using these marks as definitive proof that Neanderthals were able to create their own fires is something that does not fully prove his theory, as Andrew Sorensen readily admits.

“The traces made by pyrite were the best fit. But there could be some other mineral material that we just didn’t think of that could create similar traces.”

On the other hand, unless other scientists can show different ways in which these marks could have been created 50,000 years ago, the most logical and compelling conclusion so far is that Neanderthals were probably capable of creating fire themselves.

The new study on Neanderthals using their stone hand-axes to produce their own fires has been published in Scientific Reports.