Evidence of burning from bushfires in Southern and East Africa and its relevance to hominin evolution
Document Type: Journal Article
Author(s): John A. J. Gowlett; James S. Brink; Adam Caris; Sally Hoare; Stephen M. Rucina
Publication Year: 2017

Cataloging Information

  • Africa
  • animal carcasses
  • bushfires
  • East Africa
  • fire speed
  • human activity
  • Southern Africa
  • International
Record Maintained By:
Record Last Modified: October 16, 2020
FRAMES Record Number: 62116


Early human fire use is of great scientific interest, but little comparative work has been undertaken across the ecological settings in which natural fire occurs or on the taphonomy of fire and circumstances in which natural and human-controlled fire could be confused. We present here results of experiments carried out with fire fronts from grass- and bushland in South and East Africa. Our work illustrates that in these circumstances hominins would have been able to walk with and exploit fires, and we emphasize that there can be different levels of fire use. The results also indicate that traditional assumptions about the discrimination of these are not reliable. Grass fires pass through the landscape rapidly in burns of less than 5 minutes duration, but areas of denser vegetation burn to much higher temperatures and for much longer. Trees are also caught in fires and may burn back into their roots, baking sediments. Animal bones on the surface can also become burned, so that presence of burned bone has to be used with care as an indicator of human activity. Duration of burning, repeated nature of burning, and copresence of features of human activity may give a better indication of human involvement.

Online Link(s):
Gowlett, J. A. J.; Brink, J. S.; Caris, Adam; Hoare, Sally; Rucina, S. M. 2017. Evidence of burning from bushfires in Southern and East Africa and its relevance to hominin evolution. Current Anthropology 58(S16):S206-S216.