Finding the Optimal Location for the Tribal Bonfire

Written on |

Early humans’ placement of cave hearths ensured maximum benefit and minimum smoke exposure.

In a first-of-its kind study, the researchers developed a software-based smoke dispersal simulation model and applied it to a known prehistoric site. They discovered that the early humans who occupied the cave had placed their hearth at the optimal location – enabling maximum utilization of the fire for their activities and needs while exposing them to a minimal amount of smoke. The groundbreaking study provides evidence for high cognitive abilities in early humans who lived 170,000 years ago.

The study was led by PhD student Yafit Kedar, and Prof. Ran Barkai from the Jacob M. Alkow Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures at The Lester and Sally Entin Faculty of Humanities, together with Dr. Gil Kedar. The paper was published in Scientific Reports.

In the Back of the Cave? Or towards the front?

The use of fire by early humans has been widely debated by researchers for many years, regarding questions such as: At what point in their evolution did humans learn how to control fire and ignite it at will? When did they begin to use it on a daily basis? Did they use the inner space of the cave efficiently in relation to the fire? While all researchers agree that modern humans were capable of all these things, the dispute continues about the skills and abilities of earlier types of humans. One focal issue in the debate is the location of hearths in caves occupied by early humans for long periods of time.

“Multilayered hearths have been found in many caves, indicating that fires had been lit at the same spot over many years,” says Yafit Kedar. “In previous studies, using a software-based model of air circulation in caves, along with a simulator of smoke dispersal in a closed space, we found that the optimal location for minimal smoke exposure in the winter was at the back of the cave. The least favorable location was the cave’s entrance.”

Humans Need Balance

In the current study, the researchers applied their smoke dispersal model to an extensively studied prehistoric site – the Lazaret Cave in southeastern France, inhabited by early humans around 170-150 thousand years ago. “According to our model, based on previous studies, placing the hearth at the back of the cave would have reduced smoke density to a minimum, allowing the smoke to circulate out of the cave right next to the ceiling,” explains Kedar. “However, in the archaeological layers we examined, the hearth was located at the center of the cave.”

The team tried to understand why the occupants had chosen this spot, and whether smoke dispersal had been a significant consideration in the cave’s spatial division into activity areas. The researchers performed a range of smoke dispersal simulations for 16 hypothetical hearth locations inside the 290sqm cave. To understand the health implications of smoke exposure, measurements were compared with the average smoke exposure recommendations of the World Health Organization.

Excavations at the Lazaret Cave, France (photo: De Lumley, M. A. néandertalisation (pp. 664-p). CNRS éditions. (2018Les restes humains fossiles de la grotte du Lazaret. Nice, Alpes-Maritimes, France. Des Homo erectus européens évolués en voie de)

The researchers found that the average smoke density, based on measuring the number of particles per spatial unit, is in fact minimal when the hearth is located at the back of the cave – just as their model had predicted. However, Yafit Kedar and Dr. Gil Kedar explain that they also discovered that “In this situation, the area with low smoke density, most suitable for prolonged activity, is relatively distant from the hearth itself. Early humans needed a balance – a hearth close to which they could work, cook, eat, sleep, get together, warm themselves, etc. while exposed to a minimum amount of smoke. Ultimately, when all needs are taken into consideration – daily activities vs. the damages of smoke exposure – the occupants placed their hearth at the optimal spot in the cave.”

Our Ancestors Nailed It

The study identified a 25sqm area in the cave which would be optimal for locating the hearth in order to enjoy its benefits while avoiding too much exposure to smoke. Astonishingly, in the several strata examined in this study, the early humans actually did place their hearth within this area. 

“Our study shows that early humans were able, with no sensors or simulators, to choose the perfect location for their hearth and manage the cave’s space as early as 170,000 years ago – long before the advent of modern humans in Europe. This ability reflects ingenuity, experience, and planned action, as well as awareness of the health damage caused by smoke exposure. In addition, the simulation model we developed can assist archaeologists excavating new sites, enabling them to look for hearths and activity areas at their optimal locations,” concludes Prof. Barkai.

In upcoming studies, the researchers intend to use their model to investigate the influence of different fuels on smoke dispersal, use of the cave with an active hearth at different times of year, use of several hearths simultaneously, and more.

Related posts

Antisemitism in 2021: War and Covid-19 Catalyzed Global Uptick

April 27, 2022

Unravelling Recycling Practices from 500,000 Years Ago

March 21, 2022

TAU Special Briefing: Crisis in Ukraine

March 8, 2022

Annual Review – Positive Trends in Fighting Antisemitism and Radicalization around the World

January 27, 2022

Start Up Nation in Ancient Canaan

January 24, 2022

Health Revelations from Ancient Jerusalem

January 4, 2022

Over the Past 1.5 Million Years, Human Hunting Preferences have Wiped Out Large Animals

December 30, 2021

Ancient Climate Crisis Transformed Us from Nomadic Hunters to Settled Farmers

December 6, 2021

Recordings of the magnetic field from 9,000 years ago teach us about the magnetic field today

August 19, 2021

A New Tool for Combating Discrimination

July 15, 2021

New Type of Prehistoric Human Discovered in Israel

June 27, 2021

Leading the Global Yiddish Renaissance

June 22, 2021

Antisemitism – Defined, Yet Running Wild

May 28, 2021

Facebook And WhatsApp Are Changing The Sexual Abuse Attitude In Israel’s Hasidic Community

May 18, 2021

Antisemitism During the Pandemic: Less Physical Violence, Upsurge in Online Antisemitism

April 6, 2021

Got Beef? Your Ancestors Were Likely VERY into Meat…

April 5, 2021

When Size Does Matter…

March 11, 2021

A Glimpse into the Wardrobes of King David and King Solomon

February 1, 2021

TAU Excavation Examines “Ancient High Tech”

January 25, 2021

Power of Images: Memorializing the Holocaust through Film

January 25, 2021

The Toolkit of Prehistoric Humans

January 20, 2021

Globalization During the Bronze & Early Iron Ages

December 28, 2020

Rescue Mission: Pioneering TAU Program Preserves Ethiopian Jewish Heritage

October 21, 2020

A 6,500-year old copper workshop uncovered in Beer Sheva

October 12, 2020

The Texts From The Biblical-Period Fortress At Tel Arad Were Written By 12 Different Authors

September 14, 2020

Fight Online Antisemitism

August 13, 2020

Unprecedented: A Senior Saudi Researcher Contributed an Article to an Israeli Academic Journal

July 13, 2020

Straight to the Point

July 5, 2020

A worldwide wave of antisemitism unleashed by COVID-19 pandemic

June 24, 2020

Dead Sea Scrolls “puzzle” solved with DNA from ancient animal skins

June 3, 2020

Study finds ancient Canaanites genetically linked to modern populations

June 1, 2020

Did climate change cause infections 6,000 years ago?

May 21, 2020

Antisemitic Manifestations Worldwide – 2019 and the Beginning of 2020

April 20, 2020

Disease found in fossilized dinosaur tail afflicts humans to this day

February 12, 2020

Iron Age Temple Complex Discovered Near Jerusalem Calls Into Question Biblical Depiction of Centralized Cult

February 3, 2020

Recalculating: when research starts one way and ends another

February 2, 2020

New study reveals palace bureaucracy in ancient Samaria

January 23, 2020

TAU study among top 12 most important in the world

January 9, 2020

Are American Jews and Israel growing apart?

July 4, 2019

Early Humans Deliberately Recycled Flint To Create Tiny, Sharp Tools

May 30, 2019

New evidence points to existence of Biblical figure

May 6, 2019

Violent attacks against Jews worldwide spiked 13% in 2018

May 6, 2019

A match made in Megiddo

February 13, 2019

Our 2018 Highlights- Dan David research is at the Top

January 4, 2019

Pursuing the Unknown

Copyright ©  Tel Aviv University Trust. All rights reserved.
Registered charity number 314179.