In the 1981 movie Quest for Fire, a group of Neanderthals struggles to keep a small ember burning while moving across a cold, bleak landscape. The meaning is clear: If the ember goes out, they will lose their ability to cook, stay warm, protect themselves from wolves—in short, to survive. The film also makes it obvious that these Neanderthals do not know how to make fire.
During the Middle Paleolithic, roughly 250,000 to 40,000 years ago, when Neanderthals occupied Europe and much of western Asia, the climate included a couple of major warm periods similar to today, but was dominated by two major cold periods that included dozens of shifts between cold and very cold conditions. Quest for Fire presented a generally accurate portrayal of Europe during one of the cold periods (80,000 years ago, according to the film’s title card), but almost all researchers agreed that the movie was flat-out wrong in its suggestion that Neanderthals were incapable of making fire. Now, new fieldwork our team has done in France contradicts some long-held assumptions and shows that the film might have had it right all along.
Conventional thinking has long held that our human ancestors gained control of fire—including the ability to create it—very early in prehistory, long before Neanderthals came along some 250,000 years ago. For many researchers, this view has been supported by the discovery of a handful of sites in Africa with fire residues that are more than a million years old. But it has also been buoyed by the simple logic of one idea: It is hard to imagine that our ancestors could have left Africa and colonized the higher, and often much colder, latitudes of Europe and Asia without fire.