Saturday, January 9, 2010

Home is where the hearth is


The presence of a hearth and organization of living space has been found in an Israeli archaeological site dated to about 790,000 ya. It's not certain who used this site--the tools are Acheulian, but no hominid skeletal material are present. It's possible that the site's users were Homo erectus or a transitional Homo species.

Nonetheless, what is exciting about this site is that these early humans controlled fire, producing a variety of tools, ate a diverse balanced diet, and came home to an organized living space. Two major activity areas were found: one was the site of the majority of flint-knapping, fish processing, and the use of chopping tools (based on the fish processing, I'd suggest that this was the place where the "dirty work" took place). At the hearth, an anthropogenic center of controlled fire, nuts were processed, and basalt and limestone-knapping occurred (as well as some flint-knapping).

What's also interesting is that plant and animal remains provide some insight into their diet and ranging patterns. While the living site was near a lake, in a fairly wet environment, there are plant materials from drier woodlands some distance away. Additionally, there several kind of nuts, including oak acorn and water chestnuts, that were probably roasted and eaten. Other plants food included the fruits of olives and white grapevine, and the leaves of wild beet and holy thistle. As for food remains, their aquatic prey included freshwater turtles and carp, while their terrestrial prey included fallow deer, elephants, and other mammals.

Overall, this site gives us a picture of what these ancient hominids ate, and how they lived. Furthermore, it provides evidence that they did control and use fire. Finally, the spatial organization, with distinct areas for different activities, suggests cognitive sophistication that would require communication between different group members and may also be reflective of a division of labor.

Furthermore, the presence of a hearth and spatial organization suggests that this wasn't just a living site, but a real "home" for the hominids that lived there--did Homo erectus have a concept of "home" that is similar to our own? Did they gather around the hearth every night to eat, work, and socialize? Picturing them doing so makes them seem even more "human-like" to me.

Although this article might be a bit dense for my students, it's short and pretty interesting, so I think I'm going to give it to them as one of their outside readings.

Reference: Spatial Organization of Hominin Activities at Gesher Benot Ya'aqov, Israel.2009. Nira Alperson-Afil, et. al, Science 326: 1677-1680.DOI: 10.1126/science.1180695

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