The oldest evidence of humans harnessing fire to forge stone tools has been uncovered in South Africa by an international team including UNSW's Dr Andy Herries. The discovery lends weight to a theory that creative human thought first evolved at least 70,000 years ago.
A study of tools discovered at Pinnacle Point on Africa's southern tip has revealed that humans used sophisticated pyrotechnology 72,000 years ago - and perhaps as early as 164,000 years ago - to transform local stone into a form that was easier to flake into sharp points.
Previously, the first use of heat treatment was thought to have emerged in Europe 25,000 years ago.
The early modern humans at Pinnacle Point fired their silcrete stone at temperatures between 300 and 400 degrees.
"It is essentially the oldest evidence we have for humans having a complex understanding of the engineering properties of materials," Dr Herries said.
"In a similar way that humans later used fire to alter rocks to make copper and iron, here they are using fire to alter the properties of rocks to enable them to make better stone tools. In a way it's the beginnings of engineering," he said.
The research, led by Kyle Brown of the University of Cape Town, is published in the latest edition of the prestigious journal Science.
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