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Archaeologists find oldest ever example of systematic coal use by humans

Scientists suspect ancient people took to coal to meet demands of expanding metallurgical activity

Vishwam Sankaran
Tuesday 01 August 2023 10:37 BST
Related video: Hydrogen Energy Industry in Zhangjiakou, China

A new archaeological study has revealed the earliest ever systematic mining and exploitation of coal by humans for fuel.

Humans have been in the search for new sources of fuel to exploit for energy since their origins with plants being used initially about 790,000 years ago, and later wood, charcoal and dung widely used as fuel.

Now, the new study published recently in Science Advances has revealed that the earlier mining operations occurred in northwestern China about 3,600 years ago.

Coal became more important in the Chinese Song Dynasty about 990 to 670 years ago, and later played an instrumental role in the European Industrial Revolution.

While previous research has pointed to sporadic combustion of coal for fuel in some prehistoric archaeological sites, the time since humans systematically began using it has remained unclear.

Until now, the earliest reliable record in the form of textual evidence that exists for the systematic exploitation of coal for fuel is from the Chinese Han Dynasty about 2152 to 1730 years ago.

While some scholars have also asserted that coal may have been used in a few locations during the Bronze Age of northern China about 4000 to 3000 years ago, detailed and reliable archaeological context has remained elusive.

Now, a new analysis at the Bronze Age site called Jirentaigoukou in China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region provides a fresh peek into the history of early coal use by humans.

Here, scientists have now found coal in various forms throughout the archaeological site near China’s Kashi river, which they said was a bustling settlement about 3,600 and 2,900 years ago.

Researchers found evidence that, starting from about 3,800 years ago, ancient people of the region began cultivating multiple crops and the domestication of multiple types of livestock along with complex bronze working.

These led to a dramatically enhanced complexity and resilience of local societies, with further expansion of their metallurgical activity that required more supply of fuel resources.

The study suggested that the coal used here during the ancient time period was accessible to everyone as a shared resource regardless of an individual’s social status or occupation in this settlement.

“I imagine they must have tried burning the coal from all these sites, and then discovered some had better quality than others,” study co-author Guanghui Dong from Lanzhou University in China told Science.

Scientists conducted a field survey to better understand how prehistoric inhabitants exploited coal as their primary fuel resource.

The new survey of the site suggested colder conditions during the time resulted in a receding and narrowing conifer forest belt that reduced the supply of wood resources in the area.

Scientists suspect the early societies of the region took to coal to meet the demands of their expanding metallurgical activity, which they later developed into a well-planned system for extracting and using the fuel.

“We argue that the intense demand for fuel energy brought by a larger community and metallurgical production, together with a more limited supply of wood resources, escalated the conflict between local society and the environment, which finally triggered a break with local tradition in the form of adapting an alternative energy resource, the coal,” they wrote.

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