The most persistent impression most people have of ancient cave people is that of monosyllabic, knuckle-dragging primitives wielding clubs and communicating via guttural groans.
But modern archaeology is slowly revealing a far more complex and nuanced view of our ancient forebears, one that suggests they were, in fact, reasoning, thoughtful, problem-solving beings capable of adapting to and exploiting their environment.
One of the most recent studies to examine the lives of so-called cave dwellers is centred on a cave located in suburban Nice, in southern France. Known locally as the Grotte du Lazaret the cave is an archaeological site rich with evidence of prehistoric human occupation. In fact, scientists have unearthed more than 20,000 fossilized bone fragments inside the cave.
As rich as it is in archaeological remains, the real significance of Lazaret Cave may lay in how ancient male used the space rather than what he or she left behind. Evidence suggests that pre-Neanderthals carefully placed their fire hearths to minimize smoke exposure while maximizing room for other activities including socialisation and tool making.
Three archaeologists from Israel’s Tel Aviv University used computer models to test 16 theoretical hearth locations in Lazaret Cave, a site known for its lengthy occupation by Homo heidelbergenis, who occupied the cave around 170,000 years ago and are otherwise known as pre-Neanderthals.
These people were the first early human species to live in colder climates. Their short, wide bodies allowed them to conserving heat effectively, almost certainly a survival-linked adaptation. Heidelbergenis lived at during the time when man developed the oldest definite control of fire and use of wooden spears and was the first early human species to hunt large animals consistently.
The Tel Aviv team, which published its findings in the journal Scientific Reports, concluded that the centre of the cave was the ideal spot for a hearth, limiting smoke exposure while giving early humans enough room to conduct activities such as social interaction, cooking and producing stone and wooden tools.
This suggests that the ancient cave dwellers were sophisticated spacial planners. “Our study shows that early humans were able, with no sensors or simulators, to choose the perfect location for their hearth and manage the cave’s space as early as 170,000 years ago—long before the advent of modern humans in Europe,” says study co-author Ran Barkai. “This ability reflects ingenuity, experience and planned action.”
Based exclusively on smoke exposure, the analysis recognized the area at the rear of Lazaret Cave as the safest place to position a fire hearth and the cave entrance as the worst place as incoming air currents flooded the space with smoke that could not escape.
By selecting the centre of the cave rather than the rear or entrance, heidelbergensis balanced the risks to their health and comfort from inhaling wood smoke with the vital social role the heath site played in their daily lives.
“Here we show that the organization of space in the cave depended on the location of the hearth: It was optimally placed, and the rest of the space was built around it,” says Barkai. “It seems first they decided where to place the fire and then it seems as if they planned: Let’s do the butchering here, hang the meat to dry here and sleep there.”
Fire was used mainly for cooking, for warmth and roasting meat Ran Barkai says in a recent interview. “When you light a fire in an enclosed chamber, there is a danger of inhaling smoke. And this is not good for the health, and in many cases, it does not allow people to even to stay near the fire because of the smoke.”
The cave has multiple habitation levels, indicating people lived there for thousands of years. Each level revealed multiple fire hearths, however there was always a fire hearth in the centre of the cave on each level, showing that trial and error was used in finding the ideal location by successive generations of inhabitants.
What this demonstrates is that these cave dwellers had to make intelligent decisions about where they lived and how they used the spaces in which they lived. And if these pre-Neanderthals could make those choices, then others were presumably making similar choices at the same time. Which, in turn means they were smart. Possibly just as smart as we are today.