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.

Originele taal-2Engels
Aantal pagina's8
TijdschriftProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Nummer van het tijdschrift31
StatusGepubliceerd - 3 aug 2021

Bibliografische nota

Funding Information:
We thank Margherita Mussi (Sapienza University of Rome), John Speth (University of Michigan), and Raymond Corbey (Leiden University) for fruitful discussions about aspects of this study; four anonymous PNAS-reviewers for their constructive comments; and the Editor for very helpful suggestions. This study was partly financed through Leiden University’s “Liveable Planet” initiative and by the “NWO Spinoza prize” awarded (to W.R.) by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.


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