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Prehistoric pyrotechnology: insights on hominid behavior from high resolution study of combustion features

Final Activity Report Summary - PREPHIRES (Prehistoric pyrotechnology: insights on hominid behavior from high resolution study of combustion features)

The main aim of this research is to investigate how Neanderthals managed their fires during the Middle Paleolithic. We therefore identified and characterized the components of the ashes of well-preserved combustion features from several Neanderthals sites in Europe and the Near East. The components investigated include: plant remains (charcoal and phytolits), other charred materials (fat derived), bones, and soil inclusions. We analysed the morphology of these components and characterized their material properties by using in situ molecular and crystallographic techniques. Thus we produced evidence of fuel composition, combustion conditions and fire duration. Then by integrating this microscopic evidence with the macroscopic morphological observations (e.g. shape, dimensions and location of the hearths; the number and thickness of the ash levels, associated stone tools and faunal assemblage, etc.) we defined the usage scenario that best fitted the evidence.

We found that there is large variability amongst the combustion features of a single cave and/or at different sites. These findings not surprisingly demonstrate that Homo Neanderthalensis used fire for many different activities. In fact at Kebara cave (Mount Carmel, Israel) hearths varied in size and in refuelling episodes with wood being the main fuel. Ash were clearly removed from the hearths and dumped against the wall of the cave.

In the Perigorde (France) coeval Neanderthals groups show totally different fire management strategies. In fact, at Pech de l'Aze scattered hearths were fuelled with significant amounts of bones while at Roc de Marsal (20km away) hearths were well confined and fueled mainly with plant material. We described a similar situation at Oscurusciutu rock shelter in Apulia (Italy) where we also found some indication of ash removal from the hearths. In conclusion we described the characteristics of Neanderthal combustion features with a level of resolution that was never done before contributing importantly to the reconstruction of the life of this important group of hominin.