Neanderthals in southern Tuscany used fire to manufacture wooden tools used for foraging and hunting around 171,000 years ago, experts have found.
Experts used radiometric dating, which measures the decay of radioactive particles, to establish the age of a trove of wooden implements and bones they uncovered.
The finds furnish some of the earliest evidence of wood processing and fire use by Neanderthals.
The find was made by a team of researchers, including the Ministry of Heritage and Cultural Activities in Florence.
In 2012, excavations for building thermal baths at Poggetti Vecchi, nestled at the foot of a hill in Grosseto in southern Tuscany, turned up the collection of ancient artefacts.
This included wooden sticks and the fossilised bones of a straight-tusked elephant, Palaeoloxodon antiquus. Most of the wooden implements were hewn from boxwood branches and likely used as digging sticks.
Such digging sticks have been known to be used for gathering plants and hunting small game.
The ends of the metre long (40 inch) sticks were fashioned into blunt points and had rounded handles useful for foraging.
Cut marks and striations, a series of linear marks, on the sticks bear witness to the manufacturing process.
Signs of superficial charring and microanalysis of blackened surfaces suggest the use of fire, in addition to stone tools, to scrape and shape the sticks.
Boxwood is among the hardiest and heaviest of European timbers. It choice as a preferred material suggests the technical mastery of toolmaking by early Neanderthals.
The find also provides some of the earliest evidence for the use of fire for fabricating wooden tools.
Writing in the report, its authors said: ‘Wood is a widely available and versatile material, which has admittedly played a fundamental role in all human history.
Wood, however, is most vulnerable to decomposition. Hence, its use is very rarely documented during prehistory.
“The present study yields new insights into the cognitive abilities of the early Neanderthals in wooden tool production and pyrotechnology.
“The early Neanderthals from the late Middle Pleistocene site of Poggetti Vecchi were able to choose the appropriate timber and to process it with fire to produce tools.
“The artefacts recall the so-called “digging sticks,” multipurpose tools used by all hunter-gatherer societies.”
The full findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
After 101 days of traveling by plane, train, automobile, Korean warship, zipline and even robot, the Olympic torch will finally reach the site of the Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Last Friday, a lucky honoree will use it to light the Olympic cauldron in a grand, symbolic start to the games.
While the blaze looks like any other, its origins are special: It was lit not with matches or a Zippo lighter, but with a parabolic mirror, echoing rituals from Ancient Greece.
To brush up on algebra, a parabola is a particular type of arc that is defined by the exact curvature of its sides.
Mathematically, these symmetrical curves all take some form of the equation, Y = X^2. Revolve a parabola around its axis, and you have the shape of a parabolic mirror.
Unlike most curves, which scatter incoming light in many directions, the reflected beams bounce from a parabola and all concentrate to one point, the focus.
These reflective surfaces are used in a number of devices to concentrate not only reflected light, but also sound or radio waves.
Satellite dishes, some types of microphones, reflecting telescopes and even car headlights benefit from the reflective properties of parabolic dishes.
In the case of the Olympics, when the sun shines on a parabolic dish, known to the ancient Greeks as a Skaphia or crucible, the rays all bounce off its sides and collect at one blazing hot point.
Put a piece of paper—or a gas torch—in that focal point, and you get fire.
A lone parabolic dish does a decent job heating things up, achieving temperatures of at least hundreds of degrees.
“That’s really very easy to reach,” says Jeffrey Gordon, professor of physics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.
Some may even be able to reach temperatures in the thousands of degrees, says Jonathan Hare, a British physicist and science communicator.
Hare has witnessed parabolic mirrors vaporize carbon, something that only happens at temps over 2,000 degrees Celsius
If conditions are absolutely ideal, light can be concentrated to match the same temperature as its source, Gordon explains. In the case of the sun, that means that the upper temperature limit when concentrating its rays is around 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
“No matter what you do, no matter how brilliant you are, you can never bring any object on Earth to a higher temperature [by concentrating sunlight],” says Gordon.
But, of course, conditions are never ideal. First, some of that heat is lost to the atmosphere.
Then, some is absorbed into your reflective surface, and still another fraction is scattered away due to imperfections in the mirror.
“The parabola is a good concentrator but not a perfect concentrator,” Gordon adds.
Gordon’s research is focused on pushing the limits of sun concentration to the max.
Using multiple concentrating mirrors, his lab has achieved temperatures of nearly 3,000 degrees Celsius, applying the heat for a range of feats, including a sun-powered surgical laser and a reactor for creating nanomaterials.
But now, at some truly blistering temps, he has a different problem.
“We start to destroy everything,” he says.
In the case of Olympic torch lighting, the issues are somewhat more mundane. For one, there’s the potential for clouds.
In the days leading up to the modern torch lighting ceremony at the ancient temple of Hera in Olympia, the organizers light a flame in a parabolic dish, just in case clouds obscure the sun on the day of the ceremony.
The preparedness proved useful at this year’s event, which took place on the drizzly morning of October 24, 2017.
People have practiced the concentration of the sun’s rays for thousands of years. The most famous example of solar concentration comes from 212 B.C. during the siege of Syracuse, Greece.
The Greek mathematician and inventor Archimedes used the parabolic mirror, so the story goes, to deter a fleet of approaching ships, crafting a solar death ray using panels of what was likely polished bronze.
Though there’s reason to doubt the veracity of these somewhat fantastical claims—including a failed MythBusters’ attempt to replicate the feat—the ancient Greeks did have a handle on the magic of these special curves.
The first torches used in the games were modeled after ancient designs, writes Chapoutot. Built by the Krupp Company, Germany’s largest armament producer, each one only burned for 10 minutes.
The torches used today have come a long way.
In recent years, organizers have opted for high-tech features to keep the flame lit, no matter the weather.
This year’s torch, dreamed up by Korean designer Young Se Kim, has four separate walls to ensure the flame can withstand winds up to 78 mph.
It also has a tri-layered umbrella-like cover to prevent rain from extinguishing the blaze. It can even withstand temperatures down to -22 degrees Fahrenheit thanks to its internal circulation system.
If the flame goes out en route, support is always nearby with backup fire lit by parabolic mirror to swiftly relight it. Though the flame has averted major disasters this year, its robot transporter almost tipped over.
Organizers rushed to right the bot, preserving the flame.
So during last friday’s opening ceremony, as the Olympic cauldron is lit, take a moment to appreciate the fire that roared to life under a glowing bath of concentrated rays of sunlight.
As Greek archaeologist Alexander Philadelphus described during the planning of the first torch relay, the warm glow wasn’t lit by modern mechanics, but rather came directly from Apollo, “the god of light himself.”
Have wildfires increased globally over recent years? And if so, is global warming to blame?
Research has illuminated this, along with what wildfires do to us and our environment, and which areas are most vulnerable.
Unusually large wildfires ravaged Alaska and Indonesia in 2015. The following year, Canada, California and Spain were devastated by uncontrolled flames.
In 2017, massive fires devastated regions of Chile and now, a deadly blaze in Portugal has claimed dozens of lives.
Science suggests that over the past few decades, the number of wildfires has indeed increased, especially in the western United States.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), every state in the western US has experienced an increase in the average annual number of large wildfires over past decades.
Extensive studies have found that large forest fires in the western US have been occurring nearly five times more often since the 1970s and 80s. Such fires are burning more than six times the land area as before, and lasting almost five times longer.
What’s more, wildfire season – meaning seasons with higher wildfire potential – has universally become longer over the past 40 years.
This trend is something Jason Funk, senior climate scientist with UCS, is very worried about.
According to Funk, not only US forests are endangered by increasing wildfires – the trend has been that wildfires are burning more area around the world.
Projections by the UCS suggest that wildfires could get four, five and even six times as bad as they currently are within this century.
Funk has been researching the impact of climate change on landscapes in the US, and says there is very well documented scientific evidence that climate change has been increasing the length of the fire season, the size of the area burned each year and the number of wildfires.
Wildfires are typically either started accidentally by humans – such as a burning cigarette carelessly tossed out of a window – or by natural causes like lightning.
These “ignition events” don’t have a major effect on the scale of the fire, says Funk. But what does affect scale are prevailing climate conditions. And these have become warmer and drier – due to climate change.
Greenhouse gas emissions, via the greenhouse effect, are causing the global temperature to increase and the climate to change. This enhances the likelihood of wildfires.
Why? Because warmer temperatures increase evaporation, which means the atmosphere draws more moisture from soils, making the land drier.
A warmer climate also leads to earlier snowmelt, which causes soils to be drier for longer. And dry soils become more susceptible to fire.
Drier conditions and higher temperatures increase not only the likelihood of a wildfire to occur, but also the duration and the severity of the wildfire.
That means when wildfires break out, they expand faster and burn more area as they move in unpredictable ways. “They really take off and get out of control more frequently than in the past,” said Funk.