skip to main content

Title: Geochemical Evidence for the Control of Fire by Middle Palaeolithic Hominins

The use of fire played an important role in the social and technological development of the genusHomo. Most archaeologists agree that this was a multi-stage process, beginning with the exploitation of natural fires and ending with the ability to create fire from scratch. Some have argued that in the Middle Palaeolithic (MP) hominin fire use was limited by the availability of fire in the landscape. Here, we present a record of the abundance of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), organic compounds that are produced during the combustion of organic material, from Lusakert Cave, a MP site in Armenia. We find no correlation between the abundance of light PAHs (3–4 rings), which are a major component of wildfire PAH emissions and are shown to disperse widely during fire events, and heavy PAHs (5–6 rings), which are a major component of particulate emissions of burned wood. Instead, we find heavy PAHs correlate with MP artifact density at the site. Given that hPAH abundance correlates with occupation intensity rather than lPAH abundance, we argue that MP hominins were able to control fire and utilize it regardless of the variability of fires in the environment. Together with other studies on MP fire use, these results suggest that the ability of hominins to manipulate fire independent of exploitation of wildfires was spatially variable in the MP and may have developed multiple times in the genusHomo.

more » « less
Author(s) / Creator(s):
; ; ; ; ; ;
Publisher / Repository:
Nature Publishing Group
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Scientific Reports
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract. We present the Fire Inventory from National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) version 2.5 (FINNv2.5), a fire emissions inventory that provides publicly available emissions of trace gases and aerosols for various applications, including use in global and regional atmospheric chemistry modeling. FINNv2.5 includes numerous updates to the FINN version 1 framework to better represent burned area, vegetation burned, and chemicals emitted. Major changes include the use of active fire detections from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) at 375 m spatial resolution, which allows smaller fires to be included in the emissions processing. The calculation of burned area has been updated such that a more rigorous approach is used to aggregate fire detections, which better accounts for larger fires and enables using multiple satellite products simultaneously for emissions estimates. Fuel characterization and emissions factors have also been updated in FINNv2.5. Daily fire emissions for many trace gases and aerosols are determined for 2002–2019 (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS)-only fire detections) and 2012–2019 (MODIS + VIIRS fire detections). The non-methane organic gas emissions are allocated to the species of several commonly used chemical mechanisms. We compare FINNv2.5 emissions against other widely used fire emissions inventories. The performance of FINNv2.5 emissions as inputs to a chemical transport model is assessed with satellite observations. Uncertainties in the emissions estimates remain, particularly in Africa and South America during August–October and in southeast and equatorial Asia in March and April. Recommendations for future evaluation and use are given.

    more » « less
  2. Recent developments in speleothem science are showing their potential for paleofire reconstruction through a variety of inorganic and organic proxies including trace metals (1) and the pyrogenic organic compound levoglucosan (2). Previous work by Argiriadis et al. (2019) presented a method for the analysis of trace polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and n -alkanes in stalagmites (3). These compounds reflect biogeochemical processes occurring at the land surface, in the soil, and in the cave. PAHs are primarily related to combustion of biomass while n-alkanes, with their potential for vegetation reconstruction (4), provide information on fuel availability and composition, as well as fire activity. These organic molecules are carried downward by infiltrating water and incorporated into speleothems (5), thereby creating the potential to serve as novel paleofire archives. Using this approach, we developed a high-resolution stalagmite record of paleofire activity from cave KNI-51 in tropical northwestern Australia. This site is well suited for high resolution paleofire reconstruction as bushfire activity in this tropical savanna is some of the highest on the continent, the cave is shallow and overlain by extremely thin soils, and the stalagmites are fast-growing (1-2 mm yr-1) and precisely dated. We analyzed three stalagmites which grew continuously in different time intervals through the last millennium - KNI-51-F (CE ~1100-1620), KNI-51-G (CE ~1320-1640), and KNI-51-11 (CE ~1750-2009). Samples were drilled continuously at 1-3 mm resolution from stalagmite slabs, processed in a stainless-steel cleanroom to prevent contamination. Despite a difference in resolution between stalagmites KNI-51-F and -G, peaks in the target compounds show good replication in the overlapping time interval of the two stalagmites, and PAH abundances in a portion of stalagmite KNI-51-11 that grew from CE 2000-2009 are well correlated with satellite-mapped fires occurring proximally to the cave. Our results suggest an increase in the frequency of low intensity fire in the 20th century relative to much of the previous millennium. The timing of this shift is broadly coincident with the arrival of European pastoralists in the late 19th century and the subsequent displacement of Aboriginal peoples from the land. Aboriginal peoples had previously utilized “fire stick farming”, a method of prescribed, low intensity burning, that was an important influence of ecology, biomass, and fire. Prior to the late 1800s, the period with the most frequent low intensity fire activity was the 13th century, the wettest interval of the entire record. Peak high intensity fire activity occurred during the 12th century. Controlled burn and irrigation experiments capable of examining the transmission of pyrogenic compounds from the land surface to cave dripwater represent the next step in this analysis. Given that karst is present in many fire-prone environments, and that stalagmites can be precisely dated and grow continuously for millennia, the potential utility of a stalagmite-based paleofire proxy is high. (1) L.K. McDonough et al., Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta. 325, 258–277 (2022). (2) J. Homann et al., Nat. Commun., 13:7175 (2022). (3) E. Argiriadis et al., Anal. Chem. 91, 7007–7011 (2019). (4) R.T. Bush, F. A. McInerney, Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta. 117, 161–179 (2013). (5) Y. Sun et al., Chemosphere. 230, 616–627 (2019). 
    more » « less
  3. That fire facilitated the late Miocene C4grassland expansion is widely suspected but poorly documented. Fire potentially tied global climate to this profound biosphere transition by serving as a regional-to-local driver of vegetation change. In modern environments, seasonal extremes in moisture amplify the occurrence of fire, disturbing forest ecosystems to create niche space for flammable grasses, which in turn provide fuel for frequent fires. On the Indian subcontinent, C4expansion was accompanied by increased seasonal extremes in rainfall (evidenced by δ18Ocarbonate), which set the stage for fuel accumulation and fire-linked clearance during wet-to-dry seasonal transitions. Here, we test the role of fire directly by examining the abundance and distribution patterns of fire-derived polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and terrestrial vegetation signatures inn-alkane carbon isotopes from paleosol samples of the Siwalik Group (Pakistan). Two million years before the C4grassland transition, fire-derived PAH concentrations increased as conifer vegetation declined, as indicated by a decrease in retene. This early increase in molecular fire signatures suggests a transition to more fire-prone vegetation such as a C3grassland and/or dry deciduous woodland. Between 8.0 and 6.0 million years ago, fire, precipitation seasonality, and C4-grass dominance increased simultaneously (within resolution) as marked by sharp increases in fire-derived PAHs, δ18Ocarbonate, and13C enrichment inn-alkanes diagnostic of C4grasses. The strong association of evidence for fire occurrence, vegetation change, and landscape opening indicates that a dynamic fire–grassland feedback system was both a necessary precondition and a driver for grassland ecology during the first emergence of C4grasslands.

    more » « less
  4. Rappe, Michael S. (Ed.)
    ABSTRACT Bacterial biodegradation is a significant contributor to remineralization of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)—toxic and recalcitrant components of crude oil as well as by-products of partial combustion chronically introduced into seawater via atmospheric deposition. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill demonstrated the speed at which a seed PAH-degrading community maintained by chronic inputs responds to acute pollution. We investigated the diversity and functional potential of a similar seed community in the chronically polluted Port of Los Angeles (POLA), using stable isotope probing with naphthalene, deep-sequenced metagenomes, and carbon incorporation rate measurements at the port and in two sites in the San Pedro Channel. We demonstrate the ability of the community of degraders at the POLA to incorporate carbon from naphthalene, leading to a quick shift in microbial community composition to be dominated by the normally rare Colwellia and Cycloclasticus . We show that metagenome-assembled genomes (MAGs) belonged to these naphthalene degraders by matching their 16S-rRNA gene with experimental stable isotope probing data. Surprisingly, we did not find a full PAH degradation pathway in those genomes, even when combining genes from the entire microbial community, leading us to hypothesize that promiscuous dehydrogenases replace canonical naphthalene degradation enzymes in this site. We compared metabolic pathways identified in 29 genomes whose abundance increased in the presence of naphthalene to generate genomic-based recommendations for future optimization of PAH bioremediation at the POLA, e.g., ammonium as opposed to urea, heme or hemoproteins as an iron source, and polar amino acids. IMPORTANCE Oil spills in the marine environment have a devastating effect on marine life and biogeochemical cycles through bioaccumulation of toxic hydrocarbons and oxygen depletion by hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria. Oil-degrading bacteria occur naturally in the ocean, especially where they are supported by chronic inputs of oil or other organic carbon sources, and have a significant role in degradation of oil spills. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are the most persistent and toxic component of crude oil. Therefore, the bacteria that can break those molecules down are of particular importance. We identified such bacteria at the Port of Los Angeles (POLA), one of the busiest ports worldwide, and characterized their metabolic capabilities. We propose chemical targets based on those analyses to stimulate the activity of these bacteria in case of an oil spill in the Port POLA. 
    more » « less
  5. Abstract

    We present emission measurements of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) for western U.S. wildland fires made on the NSF/NCAR C‐130 research aircraft during the Western Wildfire Experiment for Cloud Chemistry, Aerosol Absorption, and Nitrogen (WE‐CAN) field campaign in summer 2018. VOCs were measured with complementary instruments onboard the C‐130, including a proton‐transfer‐reaction time‐of‐flight mass spectrometer (PTR‐ToF‐MS) and two gas chromatography (GC)‐based methods. Agreement within combined instrument uncertainties (<60%) was observed for most co‐measured VOCs. GC‐based measurements speciated the isomeric contributions to selected PTR‐ToF‐MS ion masses and generally showed little fire‐to‐fire variation. We report emission ratios (ERs) and emission factors (EFs) for 161 VOCs measured in 31 near‐fire smoke plume transects of 24 specific individual fires sampled in the afternoon when burning conditions are typically most active. Modified combustion efficiency (MCE) ranged from 0.85 to 0.94. The measured campaign‐average total VOC EF was 26.1 ± 6.9 g kg−1, approximately 67% of which is accounted for by oxygenated VOCs. The 10 most abundantly emitted species contributed more than half of the total measured VOC mass. We found that MCE alone explained nearly 70% of the observed variance for total measured VOC emissions (r2 = 0.67) and >50% for 57 individual VOC EFs representing more than half the organic carbon mass. Finally, we found little fire‐to‐fire variability for the mass fraction contributions of individual species to the total measured VOC emissions, suggesting that a single speciation profile can describe VOC emissions for the wildfires in coniferous ecosystems sampled during WE‐CAN.

    more » « less