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News Release 09-152

Early Fire Use Ignites Discussion about the Evolution of Human Brainpower

Researcher talks about discovery of controlled fire use in Africa

Photo of tools created by the experimental use of fire-treated silcrete blocks.

Tools created by the experimental use of fire-treated silcrete blocks.

August 13, 2009

Watch an interview with paleoanthropologist Curtis Marean.

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

New evidence that early modern humans used fire in southern Africa in a controlled way to increase the quality and efficiency of stone tools is changing how researchers understand the evolution of human behavior, and in particular, the evolution of human brain power.

Curtis Marean and Kyle Brown, both paleoanthropologists with the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University, and an international team of researchers with members from South Africa, England, Australia and France found 72,000-year-old, silcrete rocks that had been fired and flaked to make stone tools in a cave along the coast of the southern tip of Africa in Mossel Bay.

The finding indicates that humans' ability to solve complex problems may have occurred at the same time their modern genetic lineage appeared, rather than developing later as has been widely speculated.

The journal Science reports the finding in its Aug. 14 issue. The National Science Foundation supports the research.

Read more in the Arizona State University press release at


Media Contacts
Bobbie Mixon, NSF, (703) 292-8070,
Carol Hughes, Arizona State University, (480) 965-6375,

Program Contacts
Elizabeth Tran, NSF, (703) 292-5338,

Principal Investigators
Curtis Marean, Arizona State University, (480) 965-2718,

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2017, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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