In early June, I ascended the rise on which stood Roc de Marsal, prime real estate in any epoch with its Tuscan-like-rolling-hills-view of the valley below. Roc de Marsal is a Middle Paleolithic site close to Les Eyzies, near the Vézère River, that dates to around 80,000 to 40,000 years ago. At its entrance stood Dibble, donning an Indiana Jones-style Fedora and chatting with Guillaume Guerin, a colleague from the University of Bordeaux, and Alain Turq. Inside the small cave stood Sandgathe, explaining in French to a couple of local archaeology aficionados that during the 2003-2009 dig seasons the team located 30 distinct fire hearths, indicating fire use during certain periods of its occupancy by Neandertals.

Curiously, though, the hearths only occurred in strata related to warm climatic periods. “There are no hearths in the strata during cold climatic periods, telling us that the Neandertals could use fire, such as that gathered from a lightning strike during a spring storm, but not make it,” Sandgathe elaborated. “[This] might explain why we see no fire hearths when the weather was particularly cold, a time you would imagine fire would be made if one could. But we don’t think they could.”

This picture carries over from their findings from the nearby Middle Paleolithic Neandertal site that they excavated a few years back, Pech de l’Azé IV. There they also found evidence for fire use, controlling it and using it in discrete spaces, along with the accompanying burnt bone and flint in the hearths, but, again, no evidence for fire in colder seasons. “The fire strata at Roc de Marsal was during warm periods,” Sandgathe said. “The same is true at Pech de l’Azé—warm periods had more lightning strikes. The correlation of the evidence for fire use at Neandertal sites and times when natural fire access was high (warm periods) is high.” Sandgathe paused and Dibble finished the thought. “We’re pretty much on our own in thinking it was from lightning strikes. That [Neandertals] were controlling fire, just not making it.”

This is a case of the popular imagination casting Neandertals in our image but not considering the entire range of evidence that supports or negates the image.

The two explained, in their easy give-and-take manner, that evidence for fire use was lacking in the strata corresponding to glacial periods, a time when the desire for a warming fire would be strong but when there would be much less lightning to produce it naturally. At the coldest periods during the European Middle Paleolithic, which occurred around 120,000 years ago and again around 60-70,000 years ago, prime periods of Neandertal occupation, the temperatures could drop to around 10 degrees Fahrenheit colder than today. If someone had the ability to make fire, this would be the optimal time to do so. But they didn’t.


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FEATURE: On Hearths, Ancient and Modern by Beebe Bahrami
©2010 The Pennsylvania Gazette

Dibble looks on as site supervisor Dennis Sandgathe of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver gives the crew members their instructions at morning meeting outside the converted tobacco-drying house that serves as the dig’s residence.

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