The discovery of fire took place half a million years earlier than thought, Israeli archaeologists have revealed.
Digs at the Gesher Benot Ya'aqov site in northern Israel near a drained lakebed uncovered burnt flakes of flint dating back 790,000 years — long before modern Homo sapiens evolved in eastern Africa.
"Concentrations of burned flint items were found in distinct areas, interpreted as representing the remnants of ancient hearths," said archaeologist Nira Alperson-Afil of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Flint, a form of quartz, creates sparks when struck against a mineral containing bits of iron, and was the main method of starting fire for hundreds of thousands of years.
It had long been accepted that Homo erectus, the dominant human species on Earth from about 2 million to about 500,000 years ago, knew how to control fire, such as blazes set by lightning strikes, but not how to start it.
Actually setting fire was thought to have been invented by later, more advanced species, such as Homo heidelbergensis or his descendant, the well-known Homo neanderthalensis.
But the sheer age of the Gesher Benot Ya'aqov site, plus the distinctive stone tools found alongside the burnt flint at the earliest layers, indicate that Homo erectus not only was the first human species to leave Africa, but the first to learn how to start fires as well.