A newly discovered hearth full of ash and charred bone in a cave in modern-day Israel hints that early humans sat around fires as early as 300,000 years ago — before Homo sapiens arose in Africa.
In and around the hearth, archaeologists say they also found bits of stone tools that were likely used for butchering and cutting animals.
The finds could shed light on a turning point in the development of culture "in which humans first began to regularly use fire both for cooking meat and as a focal point -- a sort of campfire -- for social gatherings," said archaeologist Ruth Shahack-Gross of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. [10 Things that Make Humans Special]
"They also tell us something about the impressive levels of social and cognitive development of humans living some 300,000 years ago," Shahack-Gross added in a statement.
The centrally located fire pit is about 6.5 feet (2 meters) in diameter at its widest point, and its ash layers suggest the hearth was used repeatedly over time, according to the study, which was detailed in the Journal of Archaeological Science on Jan. 25.
Shahack-Gross and colleagues think these features indicate the hearth may have been used by large groups of cave dwellers. What's more, its position implies some planning went into deciding where to put the fire pit, suggesting whoever built it must have had a certain level of intelligence.
Qesem Cave was discovered more than a decade ago during the construction of a road some 7 miles (11 kilometers) east of Tel Aviv. At the site, excavators had previously uncovered other traces of fire (scattered deposits of ash and clumps of soil that had been heated to high temperatures) as well as the butchered bones of big game like deer, aurochs and horse left their by the prehistoric cave dwellers, possibly up to 400,000 years ago.