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Scientists find signs of ancient man-made fire

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(CNN) — You may be clueless about how to start a fire in the wilderness without matches or a lighter, but our ancestors may have figured it out long ago.

Scientists have uncovered evidence that humans used fire at least 1 million years ago, potentially for cooking purposes. The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Michael Chazan of the University of Toronto led an investigation into the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa. The team found burned bones and ash plant material, including grasses, leaves and twigs. The bones originated from a variety of animals: small rodents, antelopes and horselike mammals.

“The evidence that we have is compatible with low temperatures of cooking, but it’s a little bit too early to be sure” if these early humans were cooking or not, said Francesco Berna, research assistant professor of archaeology at Boston University, and lead author of the study on the findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It’s possible that the early humans ate raw meat and then threw the bones into the fire, Berna said. Scientists need to investigate further to prove that, indeed, they ate cooked meat.

The findings support the conclusions of a 2011 study led by Harvard researchers suggesting that the human ancestor species Homo erectus, which walked upright and had a smaller brain than our species, could have cooked its food. Homo erectus has smaller molars than its evolutionary predecessors, which could be because it was adapted to a cooked food diet as early as 1.9 million years ago.

Berna and colleagues also found small hand axes and other tools made out of stones in the cave, which is about 460 feet deep. About 98 feet in, they found the evidence of fire. There’s no evidence that the materials they found were burned outside and then brought into the cave, or that a wildfire could have spread from the surrounding area into the cave.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that humans and fire were there at the same time,” Berna said.

Prior to the new findings, scientists had good evidence that humans had total control over fire at least 400,000 years ago, Berna said.

The researchers’ next steps are to excavate more to see whether they find any clues about cooking, and potentially re-analyze other sites in East Africa and Europe.

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