Remains of human fire-use: an overview of Paleolithic hearth and human fire-use behavior
Acta Anthropologica Sinica
2012, 31 (01):
Fire utilization and control is considered as a distinguished characteristic of human beings within the evolutionary history. Hearth is the material representation of this characteristic, which is one of the most vital archaeological remains of ancient occupants. However, in the prehistoric time, especially in the Old Stone Age, because of the functional, size, shape, and the duration time varieties, hearths are diverse in dissimilar sites. In our study, we define the hearth as intentionally used, maintained and controlled fire, regardless of the physical structure or the duration.
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Hearth remains play a considerable role in the study of the evolution of human behaviors, the innovation of ancient diet, the development of social formation, and the interaction of human and the environment. In this paper, we review the published achievement of hearth study regard of types, functions, and the human behavioral interpretations.
In the Lower and Middle Pleistocene, hearth is hard to be preserved, even the unearthed ones are normally not distinguished and defined. Only in Zhoukoudian Loc.1 (Beijing), Jinniushan Cave (Liaoning) and Longyadong Cave (Shaanxi) sites were found hearth remains. While in the Early Upper Pleistocene, more hearths were discovered in archaeological contexts, although rarely be systematic studied. Zhoukoudian Loc.15 (Beijing), Huanglongdong Cave (Hubei), Gezidong Cave (Liaoning), and the like, are all notable with defined earth hearths and the associated remains, such as burnt bones and charcoals. Until the last stage of Pleistocene, which is associated with Late Paleolithic period, the adaptability of human beings was dramatically enhanced, as a result, the surviving mode subsequently varied. Therefore, fire-use activity became to be common and universal. One of the most notable sites from which distinguished hearth remains were found is Hutouliang open air site (Hebei). In Zhijidong Cave site (Henan), Dahe site (Yunnan), Shuidonggou site (Ningxia), Xishan site (Jilin), Chuandong Cave (Guizhou), Heimahe site (Qinghai), Shizitan (Shanxi), earth hearths were also found in situ. These finding provide abundant of information of fire use and management in East Asia during the Pleistocene.
Based on the ethnographic record, prehistoric hearths are divided into two types: the low-investment category, covering the open hearths which is basically a shallow hole in the ground and set fire inside; and the high-investment category, which refer to any other type beyond low-investment category, including structured hearth and oven.
The hearth functions are strongly related to the daily activities of ancient occupants. Therefore, hearth could be used for multiple purposes, including cooking, sleeping by, giving warmth and light and acting as the point around which people relax, chat, social interaction, or perform ceremonies.
Hearth study would bring great significance to Paleolithic archaeology. As the product of comprehensive human behaviors, hearth does not only yield burnt soil, charcoal, ash, etc, but also provide the remains of the ancient cooking. These remnant could considerably help us in paleodiet reconstruction, and the pursuit of the hunting and gathering activities; the distribution and variety of hearth forms could offer the information of the movement of ancient population; meanwhile, the examination of charcoal and ash could help to figure out the fuel, and subsequently indicate the paleoenvironment, speculate the adaptability of ancient occupants.
However, there are several limitations of hearth study. First of all, hearth found in archaeological context is normally incomplete or destroyed, which takes a lot of information away; secondly, hearth with a very short duration in the temporary or seasonal camps are very hard to be preserved and defined. Most of hearths were destroyed during the post-deposit process. Thus, when estimating the properties and functions of a hearth remain, these factors should be considered, while the subjective speculation should be avoided; thirdly, the post-deposition and contamination issues could mislead the researchers and disturb our estimation.
In China, sites with hearths are abundant within large time range including Early and Late Paleolithic period; the sites were recovered in both open air and cave area; the types and forms of hearths are also various. Recent years, with the refining of excavation methods, more and more intact hearths were found. These materials provide the great potential and perspectives of hearth study, and would give great contribute to the interpretation of human behaviors evolution.