Scientists from Leiden University and the University of Colorado–Boulder drew the conclusion after an exhaustive study of both archaeological sites in Europe and previous research on the use of fire in ancient Europe. By the end, the team had amassed data on 141 archaeological “fireplace” sites, listing the specific evidence associated with each site and assigning a confidence level to the historicity of each site.
Specifically, the scientists had the highest confidence that inhabitants had “control” of fire if the evidence at the location included two or more of the following: the presence of charcoal, heated stone artifacts, burned bones, heated sediments, and hearths. Old-earth dating methods used by the team suggest Neanderthals had continuous control of fire dating back to around 400,000 years ago—“yet another indication that they weren't dimwitted brutes as often portrayed,” the news release notes. Indeed, Neanderthals “may well have conserved and transported fire from site to site.”
“Until now, many scientists have thought Neanderthals had some fires but did not have continuous use of fire,” explained University of Colorado Museum of Natural History curator Paola Villa. “We were not expecting to find a record of so many Neanderthal sites exhibiting such good evidence of the sustained use of fire over time.”
The team also confirmed that Neanderthals used fire to make pitch (a substance familiar to creationists, thanks to Genesis 6:14) by burning the bark of birch trees in holes in the ground. (Pitch can be produced from trees by burning bark in the absence of air.) The pitch would likely have been used in toolmaking. “This means Neanderthals were not only able to use naturally occurring adhesive gums as part of their daily lives, they were actually able to manufacture their own. For those who say Neanderthals did not have elevated mental capacities, I think this is good evidence to the contrary,” Villa said.
The dating methods led the team to another conclusion, that early Europeans inhabited the cold north without the help of fire—a conclusion one scientist says is “difficult to imagine.”
Because of the old-earth assumptions used in the team’s dating methods, we can’t say that Neanderthals’ control of fire was “continuous,” but that may be safely assumed with the ample evidence of their intelligence. Moreover, the dating methods led the team to another conclusion, that early Europeans inhabited the cold north without the help of fire—a conclusion one scientist says is “difficult to imagine.” While the dates may be uncertain, the abundant evidence from this study and others is that Neanderthals, like all our human ancestors, were highly intelligent, not fundamentally different from any other Homo sapiens, and created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).
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