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Experimenting with fire to learn more about how humans lived 100 000 years ago

The archaeologists who found the World's oldest man-made drawing are back in the South African fields in search of new discoveries. This time it’s all about burning stuff – scales, ratbones and prehistoric eggshells – to look for clues of life around the fire a long, long time ago.

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The experimental fieldwork takes place in Still Bay, on the coast of the Western Cape province of South Africa. A team of six scientists will carry out several experiments using multiple fires to examine the effect heating has on various material and fragments.

“It’s very exciting to be out here in the fields after months of planning. We have had a couple of challenges setting up the camp, but now we are up and running”, Silje Bentsen says happily. She is an archeologist and part of the scientist team working at Centre for Early Sapiens Behaviour (SapienCE) at UiB.

Scientists building boxes to start fires in.
Scientists building boxes to start fires in.

Pieces of the puzzle

Carin Andersson Dahl and Jovana Milic have collected fresh shells for the fire experiments.
Carin Andersson Dahl and Jovana Milic have collected fresh shells for the fire experiments.

The aim is to understand why things look the way they do, or lie where they lie, when the scientists examine archeological discoveries in order to piece together the puzzle of how and when we became modern humans.

“We are testing how, and if fire and heat can affect the information we obtain from findings of prehistoric eggshells, scales, rat bones - or even the sand that is in the caves that we dig in when we look for clues of how and why we became who we are”, Bentsen explains.

“Various behavioral studies show that humans living 100 000 years ago used to sit around campfires, eating, talking, making tools, art and jewelry. Can we get closer to an understanding of their lives by examining and experimenting with things that are left in the fire, under the fire or nearby the fire?”

Join the team in the field

However, living the life of a true experimental archeologist is not for everyone. You really need to be a bit of an adventurer and prepared for long and hard days, according to Bentsen.

Life in the field is a 24/7 job, packed with lots of practical tasks, including heavy lifting, building, organizing, analyzing – and last but not least – staying out of wildlife trouble – like avoid being bitten by snakes or spiders.

The scientists have four fires going, and they will be burning for at least another week of experiments. If you think this sounds like exciting stuff, the team of scientists are both blogging on a daily basis and on occasion upload videos on their youtube channel.

The scientists:

The team of scientists consists of Silje Evjenth Bentsen, Turid Hillestad Nel, Magnus Haaland, Ole Unhammer, Jovana Milic and Carin Andersson Dahl.