Science: How Smart Were Our Cave Dwelling Ancestors?

The Story:

In conformity with stereotype, many of the human beings who lived circa 170,000 years ago did in fact reside in caves. Also, they had by this time learned how to set and control fires. Fascinating further queries arise if we combine these two points: what is the optimal place within a cave for the creation of a fire? and were the residents of such caves intelligent enough to ask themselves and to give the right answer to that question?


Paleontologists have performed a number of simulations of the movement of smoke about in a cave for 16 hypothetical hearth locations. They have determined that from the point of view of avoiding unhealthy contact with smoke, the cave people would have been best off putting the hearth at the back, allowing the smoke to circulate out of the cave at ceiling level. But the cave people didn’t put their hearths in back. They gave the fires a central location.

Strange New Worlds:

In a new paper published in Scientific Reports, a team of scientists argue that the cave dwellers had good reasons not to put the fire in the back. The early humans spent much of their time at or near the cave opening, and they wanted to balance two considerations: limiting their exposure to smoke on the one hand but making the fire available to assist in their daily activities, and in warming their bodies, on the other. Given all the factors, the team concludes, “the occupants placed their hearth at the optimal spot in the cave.” Our ancestors were wise about their world.

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