Caveman Chemistry

SCIENCE

Scientists know a lot about Neanderthals these days, from their hair color to their mating habits. Still, a basic mystery remains: Did they know how to start a fire? (Scientific American)

Take a walk through “Hominin History” for a look at Neanderthals and their closest relatives.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers’ Toolkit, including today’s simple MapMaker Interactive map.

This Neanderthal (sometimes called Neandertal) family was modeled by researchers at the University of Illinois using anatomical data collected from modern humans and comparing it to cranial landmarks on Neanderthal skulls. Photograph by Kenneth Garrett, National Geographic

This Neanderthal (sometimes called Neandertal) family was modeled by researchers at the University of Illinois using anatomical data collected from modern humans and comparing it to cranial landmarks on Neanderthal skulls.
Photograph by Kenneth Garrett, National Geographic

Discussion Ideas

  • The fascinating new study hints that Neanderthals may have used manganese dioxide to help light fires. What is manganese dioxide?

 

  • How would manganese dioxide help start a fire?
    • Manganese dioxide lowers the temperature needed for combustion—the temperature needed to start a fire. Manganese dioxide lowers the combustion temperature by about 100° Celsius, from 350°C to 250°C (or by about 175° Fahrenheit, from 662°F to 486°F). A lower combustion temperature makes it much easier to start fires, which would be incredibly valuable tools for Neanderthals.

 

The new research was conducted at the Pech-de-l’Azé I site in the Dordogne region of southwestern France.

The new research was conducted at the Pech-de-l’Azé I site in the Dordogne region of southwestern France.

  • Where would Neanderthals obtain manganese dioxide?
    • Neanderthal chemists may have simply extracted the mineral from the landscape. Manganese dioxide is a common, naturally occurring mineral found in the limestone cliffs and caves of Dordogne.

 

Manganese dioxide is abundant in the limestone cliffs of Dordogne. These examples from Pech-de-l’Azé I contrast unmodified blocs (b,d) with those featuring abrasion marks (a,c). Photograph from “Selection and Use of Manganese Dioxide by Neanderthals,” Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 22159 (2016)

Manganese dioxide is abundant in the limestone cliffs of Dordogne. These examples from Pech-de-l’Azé I contrast unmodified blocs (b,d) with those featuring abrasion marks (a,c).
Photograph from “Selection and Use of Manganese Dioxide by Neanderthals,” Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 22159 (2016)

  • How do scientists think Neanderthals may have used the blocks of manganese dioxide to start fires?
    • Scientists found abrasions on blocks of manganese dioxide at Pech-de-l’Azé I, indicating the blocks were scraped with a sharp tool. Scientists experimented by scraping and grinding the mineral into a powder, which they sprinkled on a pile of wood. The kindling spiked with manganese dioxide combusted at a much lower temperature than wood-only kindling.

 

  • Why would Neanderthal use of manganese dioxide to start fires be a noteworthy discovery?
    • It would indicate that Neanderthals were more cognitively advanced than previously thought. In the words of the researchers:
      • “The actions involved in the preferential selection of a specific, non-combustible material and its use to make fire are not obvious, not intuitive and unlikely to be discovered by repetitive simple trials as might be expected for lithic fracturing, tool forming and tool use. The knowledge and insights suggested by Neanderthal selection of manganese dioxide and use in fire-making are surprising and qualitatively different from the expertise we associate with Neanderthal subsistence patterns from the archaeological record.”

 

  • In what other ways do scientists think Neanderthals may have used manganese dioxide?
    • Evidence at Pech-de-l’Azé I and other Stone Age sites have long indicated that Neanderthals used manganese dioxide. Scientists have traditionally thought that Neanderthals used the mineral as a black pigment with which they decorated their bodies. (Charcoal and soot, also readily available, could also have served as Neanderthal body paint.)

 

TEACHERS’ TOOLKIT

Science: Neandertals may have used chemistry to start fires

Nat Geo: Hominin History geostory

Nat Geo: Where is Pech-de-l’Azé I? map

2 responses to “Caveman Chemistry

  1. Pingback: We Didn’t Start the Fire (Until Much Later Than We Thought We Did) | Nat Geo Education Blog·

  2. Pingback: Did Neanderthals Build Stone Circles? | Nat Geo Education Blog·

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