Middle Pleistocene fire use: The first signal of widespread cultural diffusion in human evolution

Katharine MacDonald, Fulco Scherjon, Eva van Veen, Krist Vaesen, Wil Roebroeks (Corresponding author)

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Control of fire is one of the most important technological innovations within the evolution of humankind. The archaeological signal of fire use becomes very visible from around 400,000 y ago onward. Interestingly, this occurs at a geologically similar time over major parts of the Old World, in Africa, as well as in western Eurasia, and in different subpopulations of the wider hominin metapopulation. We interpret this spatiotemporal pattern as the result of cultural diffusion, and as representing the earliest clear-cut case of widespread cultural change resulting from diffusion in human evolution. This fire-use pattern is followed slightly later by a similar spatiotemporal distribution of Levallois technology, at the beginning of the African Middle Stone Age and the western Eurasian Middle Paleolithic. These archaeological data, as well as studies of ancient genomes, lead us to hypothesize that at the latest by 400,000 y ago, hominin subpopulations encountered one another often enough and were sufficiently tolerant toward one another to transmit ideas and techniques over large regions within relatively short time periods. Furthermore, it is likely that the large-scale social networks necessary to transmit complicated skills were also in place. Most importantly, this suggests a form of cultural behavior significantly more similar to that of extant Homo sapiens than to our great ape relatives.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2101108118
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS)
Issue number31
Publication statusPublished - 3 Aug 2021

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  • Cultural behavior
  • Fire use
  • Middle Paleolithic
  • Middle Pleistocene
  • Middle Stone Age


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