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Study finds evidence of the first use of controlled fire in India 55,000 years ago at a site near Prayagraj: Report

Asked why there was so much gap between India and China where usage of human-controlled fire was traced to 400,000 years ago, scientist Parasanta Sanyal stated that the Indian sites have not been studied enough.

Latest studies have pushed back the use of controlled fire by humans in India by 30,000 years. Evolutionary scientists have discovered that the first use of controlled fire by human beings happened some 50,000 years ago in the Belan river valley, 80 km away from Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh. Until now, studies suggested that the first reported use of fire in the Indian subcontinent was from 18,000-20,000 years ago.

As per a report published in The Times of India, the sedimentary deposits of the sites situated in the Belan river valley offered a unique opportunity to scientists to understand the linkage between the prehistoric human environment and fire events.

“Before this, the first reported use of fire in the Indian subcontinent was from 18,000-20,000 years ago. Hearths were found in the same valley, considered the first direct evidence of human use of fire,” Times of India quoted Prasanta Sanyal, co-author of the paper being published in Elsevier journal ‘Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology’, as saying.

The evolutionary scientists identify the discovery of fire as one of the greatest sparks of human intelligence. To study when exactly the use of controlled fire began in the Indian subcontinent, the scientists from IISER-Kolkata looked at macro charcoal (larger than 125 microns) from six archaeological sites in the valley — Deoghat, Koldihwa, Mahagara, Chillahia, Chopani-Mando and main Belan.

A charcoal sample from Belan Valley, source: TOI

Prasanta Sanyal explained that it is possible to get charcoal from two sources — forest fires and human-made fires. Suppose, there was a forest fire in the Himalayas. It could have produced this charcoal, which was transported and deposited, said Sanyal, explaining how in man-made fire the charcoal cannot be transported. “But we found that the internal structure of these charcoal samples was still well-preserved, which could not have happened had they been transported.” Then, there was the topography. The paper says the “gentle slope of the Belan valley and its small catchment area make long-distance transportation unlikely.”

Microscopic image of a charcoal sample, source: TOI

Sanyal furthered that the scientists then reconstructed the climate patterns for the last 100,000 years. It turned out that the period the charcoal samples dated back to the period which had very high rainfall. “Besides, the vegetation was characterised by trees. Both factors are not very conducive to forest fires. You can have a natural forest fire only in dry and arid conditions,” Sanyal explained.

“We concluded that the charcoal in these archaeological sites came from human use of fire,” said Sanyal. This meant that at that time- around 50,000 years ago the human brains were developed sufficiently to control fire.

“This is the time that the cognitive abilities of prehistoric humans developed. This coincided with the period when they started creating different types of tools,” Deepak Kumar Jha, lead author, told TOI.

Once the knowledge of how to harness fire was acquired it was transferred. “The use of fire was persistent from Middle Palaeolithic to Neolithic (from 55,000 to 3,000 years ago)- from the earlier prehistoric populations to the later farming communities,” the paper says.

This recent study has made India move up to the 13th position amidst 15 oldest sites in the world with evidence of human-controlled fire. It is now the 13th oldest evidence of the use of fire in the world. The oldest is from 1.6 million years ago, at Koobi Fora in Kenya.

India has moved up to the 13th position in the table of 15 oldest sites in the world with evidence of human controlled fire, image via TOI

 “If you see China, human-controlled fire has been discovered from 400,000 years ago. Why this gap? Maybe we have not studied Indian sites enough”, maintained Prasanta Sanyal.

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