Re: Reply to Tanner

Glenn R. Morton (
Thu, 11 Jun 1998 23:00:58 -0500

At 07:03 PM 6/11/98 -0700, wrote:
>One reference immediately caught my eye because I recently reread the
>original article. Given your citation of Gowlett, I am assuming your
>reference to fire usage at 1.5 m.y.a. is in regards to the baked clay
>found at Chesowanja. The interpretation of Gowlett, Harris, Walton and
>Wood is by no means universally accepted by the anthropological
>community. In fact all the references I could get my hand on last night
>are sceptical of the claim. Glynn Isaac, (Nature, 295(?):870); M.H.
>Day,(Guide to Fossil Man, pp. 224), and even Tattersall (The Fossil
>Trail, pp. 209), whom you just reviewed, express doubt that the evidence
>indicates the deliberate control of fire. In addition to "evidence of
>fire", Gowlett, et al also found numerous artifacts and associated
>hominid fossils at this site. The fossils, however, are not Homo, but
>robust australopithecines.
I will fully agree that one probably cannot prove the case with fire, but
little in anthropology can be conclusive and beyond someone's doubt.
However, Chesowanja is widely cited as a possible use of fire. Schick and

At one site in the Koobi Fora area (called 20 East), dating to about 1.5
million years ago, there are reddened and apparently baked patches of
sediment and discolored artifacts that seem to have been altered by heat.
At Chesowanja in Kenya, dating to about 1.5 million years ago, chunks of
reddened and apparently baked clay sediment were found in proximity to an
archaeological site. And at the South African cave of Swartkrans, perhaps
dating to about 1.5 million years ago, a few specimens of darkened bone
were chemically and microscopically analyzed by C. K. Brain and Andrew
Sillen and found to have been burned. In each case there is reasonable
evidence that fire had thermally altered materials associated with early
Stone Age horizons.
"We do not yet have conclusive evidence that early hominids were directly
involved with either the production of fire or its use. Without a clear
hearth structure (that is, a fireplace), or without patterned burning on
animal bones to suggest intentional roasting, it is difficult to exclude
the possibility that these instances may simply be natural occurrences such
as brush fires or lightning strikes that may have occurred before, during
and after hominid occupation (when artifacts are also baked it would
indicate the fire was either during or after). The question of hominid
manufacture and use of fire will be addressed again in the next chapter." ~
Kathy D. Schick and Nicholas Toth, Making Silent Stones Speak, (New York:
Simon and Schuster, 1993), p.215-216

The interesting thing about Gowlett's claim is that he does have evidence
for a hearth there and that is being taught by Scarry at NCSU.

But for the moment, lets assume that Chesowanja is eliminated from the
competition, there is still the even older Swartkrans site. It IS more
widely accepted as evidence of fire use. And given that fire at an older
site IS accepted, then it is entirely likely that Chesowanja is merely
another example. Swartkrans:

"These are by no means the oldest known traces of fire, which date bate 1
to 1.5 million years in Africa (at Swartkrans Cave in South Africa,
experiments suggested that the burnt animal bones had been cooked on a wood
fire) but there is no proof that the fire in early sites of this kind was
truly controlled.
"The new French evidence comes from the site of Menez-Dregan, a collapsed
cave on the shore near Plouhinec (South Finistere), which has been
excavated for the past six years by a team led by Jean-Laurent Monnier." ~
Paul G. Bahn, "Light My Fire," The Artefact, 18(1995):90

"Burned bone from Swartkrans, South Africa. A total of 270 burned bones
excavated from Member 3 of this cave provides direct evidence that early
humans tended fire nearly a million years ago." ~ Donald Johanson and Blake
Edgar, From Lucy to Language, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), p. 96

"An interesting development in this interpretation comes from recent
excavations by Brain and Sillen at Swartkrans. In a deposit dated to
between 1 and 1.5 Myr they recovered from among almost 60,000 fossil animal
bones a sample of 270 which showed unmistakable signs of burning. Color
and surface changes indicate a range of temperatures with the majority
heated to >500o C. Antelope bones were the most frequently burnt, but at
least one bone from a robust Apith had also fallen in a fire. Their
frequencey and position point to repeated burning in the cave. The same
deposits also contain Oldowan stone tools and bones with cut marks. The
only fossil in this part of the site is A. robustus, represented by nine
individuals. Stone tools, H. habilis and robust Apiths are found in older
deposits at the site, but without evidence for fire.
"In East Africa John Gowlett has excavated an open site at Chesowanja
dated to 1.4 Myr. In among animal bones and stone tools made on pieces of
lava were some forty pieces of burnt clay. The magnetic anomaly of these
lumps is consistent with their interpretation as the result of burning in
the immediate ground surface by a small controlled fire. It is interesting
that the hominid material of the same age from Chesowanja area is also
A.robustus." ~ Clive Gamble, Timewalkers, (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press,
1993), p.70

"Both A. robustus and Homo cf. habilis are known from Members 1 and 2.
Only A. robustus remains, from nine individuals, have been recovered from
Member 3, although Homo is assumed to have been present. Tools of the
Developed Oldowan tradition are found throughout the sequence and no
important faunal difference exists between Members 1, 2 and 3, suggesting
that they are all within the time range 1.0-1.8 Myr BP. Moreover the
environmental conditions prevailing during the accumulation of these
Members seem to be similar.
"Burnt bones, apparently absent in Members 1 and 2, appear recurrently in
Member 3: an average of six 10-cm-thick levels per m2 contain burnt bones.
In one 1-m2 test pit (W3/S3) burnt fragments were found in 20 separate
vertical levels. In W3/S3 there is a scatter of bone pieces, fractured
stone, bone tools and remains of A. robustus throughout the depth of the
profile. The recurrence of burnt fragments in this and other grid-square
profiles suggests that fire was a regular event during the accumulation of
Member 3 sediment, rather than an isolated phenomenon." ~ C. K. Brain and
A. Sillen, "Evidence from the Swartkrans cave for the earliest use of
fire," Nature, 336, Dece. 1, 1988, p. 464-465

"If this is so, Paranthropus, by far the most abundant hominid at
Swartkrans, might plausibly be the stone tool maker. Susman's
interpretation has caused considerable controversy, however, and for the
moment the authorship of the stone tools from Swartkrans remains in
question. Interestingly, though, despite the fact that Member 3 has
produced only australopithecines, it is from here that traces of fire are
known. These occur in the form of burned stones and bones, heated to
temperatures typical of campfires. Member 3 times were the only point in
the early history of the cave at which hominid occupation of the cave
entrance might have been possible, and this might account for the fact that
burned objects occur only in that member; however, Brain prefers the idea
that the introduction of fire took place between Member 2 and Member 3
times. As to the fire user (for Brain is as reluctant to conclude that a
fire maker was involved as he is to affirm that the fire was used in
cooking), few doubt that, despite the lack of fossils, it was the gracile
hominid ascribed to Homo-- but to what species of Homo?" ~ Ian Tattersall,
The Fossil Trail (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 202-203

>If fire was controlled at Chesowanja, it was
>not by Homo.

This is very interesting. You are correct that the only hominid material
found was that of Australopithecus bosei or Parathropus robustus. The
reason that this is interesting is that when stone tools and fire at
Swartkrans are found also in association with P. robustus:

"Recent evidence from Swartkrans suggests that bone digging sticks, as
well as evidence of burned bone, occurred in the same geological layers
that contain the remains of P. robustus but the timespan of these layers
overlaps the temporal range of Homo." ~ B. A. Wood, "Evolution of
Australopithecines,"in S. Jones et al, editors, The Cambridge Encyclopedia
of Human Evolution, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 239

Yet the assumption is that Homo did the work.But the fact is there are 20
times more Paranthropines than Homo at the site and there are no examples
of Homo in the layer (member 3) where the fire and bone tools are found.
And at least one person has suggested that P. robustus made the tools or at
least had the ability to make the tools:

"A new analysis of the Swartkrans bones indicates that members of this
'deadend' line of hominids possessed hands with a precision grasp and were,
therefore, as capable of making and using tools as the earliest true human
species H. habilis, which has long been considered the first stone-tool
maker. Furthermore the South African remains suggest the robusts were
nearly as proficient at two-legged walking as are modern humans and spent
much of their time on the ground." ~ Bruce Bower, "Retooled Ancestors,"
Science News 133, May 28, 1988,p. 344

see also:
Ian Tattersall, The Fossil Trail (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995),
p. 202-203

Why can't the same assumption play out at Chesowanja? Or alternatively,
in actual fact, the earliest evidence of fire appears to be in association
with a genus other than Homo! What is to rule Paranthropus out of the game?
prejudice or evidence?

>While I am not quite as antagonistic towards your article, I believe I
>understand Tanners critcism with regards to "could have been." I am
>assuming you are attempoting to push back "modernity" back to over at
>least 1.5 million years.

Actually the article concerned the infilling of the Mediterranean basin.
And since I cannot absolutely prove that the infilling was the event in the
Bible (any more than one can prove that Mesopotamia was the site of the
described event) the term could have is quite appropriate. Only when one
has absolute proof can one say 'IS'. Otherwies, 'could' is better.

Yes, fire could have been controlled by humans
>that long ago, but it is far from proven. Another example is the
>Neandertal flute, while I doubt it is a fire starter, I am not entirely
>convinced it is a flute either

Go compare it with other broken flutes which are unquestionalbly accepted
by the archaeological community. Those associated with H. sapiens are
always accepted, those with others are not.

J.V.S. Megaw, "Penny Whistles and Prehistory," Antiquity XXXIV, 1960, pp 6-13
and Alex. Marshack, Roots of Civilization

>I respect your desire and applaud your efforts to find a meaningful
>concordance between the bible and the observational data of science. I
>like the fact that you have not placed special conditions on the data of
>any particular field. The immanance of God in Nature Personally, I am
>still at the point of saying "yes, the Bible says such and such, and the
>observational data indicates this and that, but I can not honestly say I
>know how to draw lines between an observation and a passage in the

I appreciate the kind words. I will freely admit that my views may not be
true, but in general they match the database we have today. Tomorrow may
be different. But Christians of all stripes, including me, should bear one
thing in mind:

One can be internally consistent and wrong; one cannot be internally
inconsistent and correct! This is why matching the data is so important.

Adam, Apes and Anthropology
Foundation, Fall and Flood
& lots of creation/evolution information