National Geographic Daily News
A photo of the oldest discovered hearth.

A hearth (at top of photo) discovered in Qesem Cave shows multiple layers of ash laid down over time.

PHOTOGRAPH BY RAN BARKAI, DEPARTMENT OF ARCHAEOLOGY, TEL-AVIV UNIVERSITY

Roff Smith

for National Geographic

Published January 29, 2014

An ancient limestone cave in the rolling countryside east of Tel Aviv has provided a captivating glimpse into humanity's remote past—the oldest known hearth, around which families periodically cooked their meals more than 300,000 years ago.

It's "the first-ever fireplace," said Tel Aviv University archaeologist Ran Barkai in an email, and the earliest-known evidence of domestication of fire. Bringing home and roasting meat are "two very human phenomena that for us seem natural, but really are not. [The hearth] belongs to a crucial time in human biological and cultural evolution."

The hearth lies inside Qesem Cave, which is located in a geographical area known as the Levant—southern Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel.

A map of the location of the oldest hearth.
PHOTOGRAPH BY RAN BARKAI, DEPARTMENT OF ARCHAEOLOGY, TEL-AVIV UNIVERSITY
This map shows the location of the Qesem Cave.

The identity of the hearth users is a mystery, though. "We call it for now a new hominin lineage," Barkai says.

"It is clearly different than [Homo] erectus and has affinities of both [Homo] sapiens and Neanderthals," he explains. "Since Neanderthals appear very late in the Levant and are of European origin, and since the Qesem [hominin] teeth bear more resemblance to early Homo sapiens in the Levant, we believe they are closer to Homo sapiens."

Qesem Cave was originally uncovered in October 2000 by a construction crew building a road. But it has taken years of excavation and analysis for Barkai, one of the co-leaders of the project, and his colleagues to build what they say is an unequivocal case for how the site was used.

Scientists found a thick bed of ash in the center of the cave. Using infrared spectroscopy, they were able to determine that the tiny bits of bone fragment mingled among the ash had been heated to high temperatures. That suggests this fire pit was used for cooking.

The ashes were not the product of a single blazing bonfire one night at a long-ago barbecue, though. Microscopic analysis of a cross section of the ash bed revealed a vast number of microstrata—layer upon layer of ancient ash, the residue of many, many fires built there over a long period of time.

Charred remnants of animal bones and flint tools used in butchering meat offered additional evidence for the activities that took place there.

Cave Hotel

The discovery of different styles and shapes of tools in other parts of the cave points to the space being organized into rooms for various functions.

"These were a very sophisticated, very clever people whose toolmaking was advanced, who hunted skilfully, could produce fire at will, and of course ate well," says Barkai.

The hearth must have formed the heart of domestic life for countless generations of hunter-gatherer families who roamed the region during the Pleistocene epoch. They would have stopped periodically at the cave, staying anywhere from a few days to a few weeks at a time.

"We believe it would have been a fairly small group of people staying here," says Barkai. "Perhaps a couple of extended families, maybe 15 or 20 people in all, staying for fairly short periods of time but always coming back."

And why wouldn't they? This would have been a very desirable place to be, says Barkai. Not only did the cave provide spacious shelter, but it also was close to fresh water, had good stone outcrops nearby for toolmaking, and was in an area with plenty of game—mainly fallow deer, judging from the charred bones in the cave.

There was also abundant wood for cooking. The cave was situated in an ideal spot, a classic Mediterranean landscape of the time that was lightly forested and well watered.

Hearth and Home

For 200,000 years—an almost inconceivable amount of time to the human imagination—the cave served as a sort of Paleolithic base camp, one whose legacy of home cooking and domesticity would offer archaeologists of a much later age a fascinating window into the dawn of humanity's use of fire.

"They were at the start of a new stage of human existence, when people began hunting deer, gathering firewood, and making barbecues," Barkai explains.

"Finding this makes me feel at home with the human race, makes me smell the smoke and the roasting meat and feel a part of a very long, and very tasty, human endeavor."

13 comments
Duane Brush
Duane Brush

In all the articles about this discovery the claim that it is 300,000 years old is in the headline. The analysis of the ash layers prove what it is, but how did they determine how old it is?

Richard G.
Richard G.

Three hundred thousand years ago. I still have a hard time with instant light briquettes.

hi ho
hi ho

even though Israel is the butt of all liberal tirades who conveniently ignore the human rights violations that the Arabs commit, still it would be nice to have a better map and more pictures.

imed Aidoudi
imed Aidoudi

National Geographic should be ashamed of publishing a map where there is no existence of the Palestinian people. I call upon all the liberals of the world to express discontent and condemn this map. 

craig hill
craig hill

The final quote echoes my feelings precisely. We are in the self-created end times of a disgusting anti-nature/post-industrialism gone haywire.

Ron Burns
Ron Burns

What a tool you are MH. This article is about the very beginnings of humanity coming together on multiple occasions over a long period of time to eat. Seeing that we had the ability to cook our food and use fire seemingly at will that far back is astounding. Too bad that along with those abilities these early folks didn't manage to lose the gene responsible for armchair agitation and drawing imaginary lines in the sand. Grow up and join the human race

Gene Moore
Gene Moore

What an as!  No barbecue for you MH!  When this site was in use there weren't any "isms" either, just people roaming around the countryside trying not to get eaten themselves.   Kinda makes me wish for the good old days.

Eddie Wilder
Eddie Wilder

@imed Aidoudi  what is wrong with you imed.? do you think palestinian people are all that and a bag of chips or is it just you ! get over it man is just that man ! you bleed red to my friend the same color as mine and every other man ! please love one another for in the end we are all the same.

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