Humans may have used fire as a social focus 300,000 years ago, a new study into a cave in Israel suggests.
Full of ash and charred bones, the 6.5 feet wide hearth discovered in the Qesem Cave, 11 miles east of Tel Aviv, could help archaeologists learn more about the development of human culture.
It also puts into question the popular theory that Homo sapiens arose in Africa 200,000 year ago.
Fragments of stone tools used for killing and slicing animals found a few feet away from the pit, alongside layers of ash, indicate the fire was used repeatedly over time as a sort of base camp
Ruth Shahack-Gross of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel said the findings could point towards a time when humans first began to regularly use fire both for cooking meat and as a focal point for social gatherings.
“[The findings] also tell us something about the impressive levels of social and cognitive development of humans living some 300,000 years ago,” Ms Shahack-Gross said.
The study conducted by Ms Shahack-Gross and her colleagues, which was published in the 'Journal of Archaeological Science', argues that whoever built the pit must have had a certain level of intelligence.
Experts have debated over which homini species –comprising of the Homo genus- was first responsible for using fires in a controlled manner. Evidence found in Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa suggests that fire was used in this way at least 1million year ago, while other anthropologists argue that the teeth of a Homo erectus had adapted to cooked food over 1.9 million years ago.
Archaeologists discovered other traces of fire at the Qesem Cave when it was uncovered over a decade ago during the construction of a road to Tel Aviv.
Researchers thought remains including scattered deposits of ash, clumps of soil that had been heated to high temperatures, and the remains of large animals, had been left by pre-historic cave dwellers up to 400,000 years ago.
A 2010 study into the traces caused controversy in the archaeology world as it questioned the theory of Homo sapiens originating in Africa, but the archaeologists were unable to draw a concrete conclusion from the evidence.