Pre-human ancestor believed to have used fire as a tool, researchers say

A momentous discovery in South Africa could turn our understanding of human history on its head. A non-human creature dubbed Homo naledi was discovered nearly a decade ago — and researchers now believe the creature may have had a head start on Homo sapiens, or humans, in using fire as a tool.

Renowned paleoanthropologist Lee Berger drew sharp criticism for hypothesizing Homo naledi was deliberately placing its dead in a dark, dangerous underground chamber in the Rising Star caves just outside Johannesburg, South Africa. Some argued it wasn’t possible to navigate the complex chamber without light.

“And the reason they didn’t believe it was because Homo naledi, with its tiny little brain just bigger than a chimpanzee, couldn’t have had fire,” Berger told CBS News.

The controlled use of fire was supposedly unique to humans, and for nearly 10 years Berger’s team found no evidence the species used fire — until Berger lost over 50 pounds so he could squeeze through the narrow corridors himself for the very first time in August.

It was torture all the way down and he was exhausted when he finally reached the bottom.

“I looked up. And I realized the ceiling was black. It was burnt. It was covered in soot. It had been right above our heads the entire time,” Berger said of his discovery.

It’s undeniable evidence of fire. The same day, lead investigator and paleoanthropologist Keneiloe Molopyane was making another remarkable find nearby: “Pieces of bone … burnt bone,” she said, which indicated they were eating there. 

After that, the team saw fire everywhere.

“I suspect based on what we’re seeing, they’re not just carrying fire. I think they’re making it,” Berger said. “And it’s done hundreds of thousands of years, perhaps, before maybe humans were doing it.”

Berger believes the discovery will challenge our assumptions about human uniqueness.

“It should make us think deeply about that way we have placed ourselves on a pedestal as something special, because Homo naledi is beginning to prove that it may have happened many times in the past,” he said. 

“One of the reasons that humans are so harmful to the environment, to this world, is because we think we have some ownership of it,” he said.

For Molopyane, a South African woman, it’s not just about a groundbreaking discovery.

“For a very long time, archeology and anthropology, all these discoveries made in Africa, have been made by men, mostly,” White men, she said. “That is when we start taking back the narrative as Africans and we get to tell our stories now.”


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