At a 1-million-year-old archaeological site in Israel, an AI tool discovered subtle evidence of modifications in flint artifacts that show ancient humans had cooking fires.
At a 1-million-year-old archaeological site in Israel, an artificial intelligence technology discovered hidden evidence of ancient fire. Applying the technology to other sites could transform our knowledge of when and where humans first learned to control fire, which is widely regarded as one of history’s most significant innovations.
Archaeologists have a few methods for determining whether or not ancient humans used fire. For example, you can look for indicators that prehistoric bones have discolored – or stone tools have bent – as a result of exposure to temperatures of 450°C or more. However, this type of evidence is uncommon at sites older than 500,000 years.
A group of Israeli academics revealed a deep-learning AI technology last year that can detect subtler indicators of fire caused by temperatures between 200 and 300°C. The researchers taught the AI by collecting chunks of flint from non-archaeological places in the Israeli countryside, heating them to specific temperatures in the lab, and then asking it to spot minor changes in the flint’s sensitivity to UV light.
The team has now used the algorithm to examine flints from a 1-million-year-old ancient human site in Israel called Evron Quarry, in collaboration with Michael Chazan of the University of Toronto in Canada.
“We chose Evron Quarry because it employs the same type of flint they used in the previous study,” Chazan explains. “However, there was no reason to believe there would be evidence of a fire there.”
The AI tool revealed, much to Chazan’s surprise, that several of the flint tools at the site had been heated, typically to temperatures of around 400°C.
The scientists then examined fragments of bone collected from the location more closely and concluded that they had been cooked as well, using existing procedures. Without the AI’s flint results, Chazan claims no one would have bothered to analyze the bones for heat exposure.
The clustering of heated stones and bones at Evron Quarry suggests that ancient humans had control over fire, rather than natural wildfire.
There is now only a smattering of evidence that people used fire 1.5 million years ago. Chazan, on the other hand, believes the AI tool might be used to evaluate a popular theory that fire — and cooking – were common between 1.8 and 2 million years ago. . “In the past, I’ve said no, I don’t believe that’s correct,” Chazan explains. He isn’t so sure anymore.