University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Gather ‘Round the Pleistocene Fire – Aylar Abdolahzadeh


By: Anne Tiballi

October 19, 2016

Les Eyzies, located in the Périgord region, is one of the most beautiful towns in southwestern France. This region is rich with rock shelters, prehistoric caves, medieval castles, and archaeological materials. Hotels, restaurants, stores, and local markets are crowded with tourists who want to know everything about this part of France’s culture and the region’s history and prehistory. All these factors make Les Eyzies a great place to work for many archaeologists from many different parts of the world.

A view of Les Eyries, the perigord region in Southwest of France. Photo by A. Abdolahzadeh.
A view of Les Eyzies, the Perigord region in southwest France. Photo by A. Abdolahzadeh.

This summer I worked alongside French archaeology students. It was amazing to learn their perspectives in archaeology and their methods in analyzing museum collections, as well as the main challenges they faced as they pursued their research projects. Working abroad not only gives me the opportunity to get to know other archaeologists, but it also allows me to share my thoughts with them. This, in turn, exposed me to different aspects of work as an archaeologist, such as potential difficulties, great opportunities, and work policies in several international settings, which will be very helpful as I advance in this field. In sum, Les Eyzies is an encouraging place to work and to learn more about the prehistory of France, and, in general, the prehistory of Western Europe.

Every day, when I drove from Carsac-Alliac, where I lived for two months, to Les Eyzies, I saw many tourists waiting to visit the caves of Lascaux, Font-de-Gaume, Combarelles, and many other prehistoric sites. This was a good chance for me to see how people cared about archaeological sites and evidence and to work with the many professionals gathered there. I was inspired to take my French press coffee pot and my laptop to the museums and to work long and diligently on the archaeological materials held therein.

A view of National Museum in Les Eyries. Photo by A. Abdolahzadeh.
A view of the National Museum in Les Eyzies. Photo by A. Abdolahzadeh.

From June 31st to August 17th I worked in two prehistoric museums, the MUSÉE NATIONAL DE PRÉHISTOIRE and ABRI PATUAD, both located in Les Eyzies, in order to investigate the use of fire in the Late Pleistocene (130-40 thousand years ago) among early humans. As a pilot study, I selected lithic (stone tool) collections from these two museums to look for evidence of fire use. I specifically analyzed the lithic collections from the sites of Combe Grenal, Abri Pataud, and La Ferrassie, as these sites have evidence of fire hearths, ash layers, and burnt stone tools. To investigate them, I used a very basic method, simply counting the flakes that showed evidence of burning.

Burnt lithics. Photo by A. Abdolahdazeh.
Burnt lithics. Photo by A. Abdolahdazeh.
Fire could have an impact on a flake in several ways. It could change a flake’s color; it also could remove small parts of a flake; or, in some cases, it could break down a complete flake into several pieces. In fact, damage to a flake depends on whether it was exposed directly or indirectly to the flame. It is important to investigate the evidence of how fire affects artifacts, such as animal bones or stone tools, and if it was accidental/natural or intentionally applied, because the habitual use of fire has changed the path of human evolution (Roebroeks and Villa 2011).

For archaeologists, a central goal is to understand the many aspects of fire use. Key to this is determining from the evidence whether the fire use was habitual, at will, or if it was accidental, something that occurred serendipitously, such as finding naturally caused fire. First, it helps us understand more about early hominins’ diets, and whether they had access to better nutrition by cooking their food. Second, it allows us to understand how they may have used fire to protect themselves from wild animals. Finally, and most importantly, it gives us a better understanding of how early humans may have had more intense social interactions because of having this opportunity to use and gather around fire.

A view of the lithic collections, Abri-Pataud site. Photo by A. Abdolahdazeh.
A view of the lithic collections from the Abri-Pataud site. Photo by A. Abdolahdazeh.
My results from analyzing these specific lithic collections (La Ferrassie, Combe Grenal, and Abri-Pataud) showed that there was not any evidence for the habitual use of fire in the late Pleistocene in this part of Europe. For example, Combe Grenal has been reported to have 63 geological and archaeological layers. Researchers divided layers by geological epochs, from very cold to temperate weather. Study of burned lithics in different epochs showed that layers with very cold and dry climate have a lower percentage of burned lithics. However, layers with less cold, temperate climates have a high percentage of burned lithics among the assemblages.

The results suggest that early hominins in the late Pleistocene had used fire very opportunistically or accidentally. However, to prove this hypothesis, I plan to collect more data from different museums and from different countries in Europe to address this and these further questions:

  1. When and where did early hominins start to use fire habitually?
  2. Why do we have evidence of burning and fire in temperate and less cold layers while we do not have such evidence in very cold layers?
  3. Did early hominins use fire accidentally in this period of time? If so, how?

References:

Roebroeks, W and V. Volla (2011). On the earliest evidence of habitual use of fire in Europe. PANS. 108 (13). P. 5209-5214.

Wrangham, R (2003). Cooking as a biological trait. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology. 136. 35-46.

Website: http://en.musee-prehistoire-eyzies.fr

Website: http://www.mnhn.fr/fr/visitez/lieux/abri-pataud


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