JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A new study shows that humans had the ability to make fire nearly 790,000 years ago, a skill that helped them migrate from Africa to Europe.
By analyzing flints at an archaeological site on the bank of the river Jordan, researchers at Israel's Hebrew University discovered that early civilizations had learned to light fires, a turning point that allowed them to venture into unknown lands.
A previous study of the site published in 2004 showed that man had been able to control fire -- for example transferring it by means of burning branches -- in that early time period. But researchers now say that ancient man could actually start fire, rather than relying on natural phenomena such as lightning.
That independence helped promoted migration northward, they say.
The new study, published in a recent edition of Quaternary Science Reviews, mapped 12 archaeological layers at Gesher Benot Yaaqov in northern Israel.
"The new data shows there was a continued, controlled use of fire through many civilizations and that they were not dependent on natural fires," archaeologist Nira Alperson-Afil said on Sunday.
While they did not find remnants of ancient matches or lighters, Alperson-Afil said the patterns of burned flint found in the same place throughout 12 civilizations was evidence of fire-making ability, though the methods used were unclear.
And because the site is located in the Jordan valley -- a key route between Africa and Europe -- it provides evidence of the human migration, she said.
"Once they mastered fire to protect themselves from predators and provide warmth and light, they were secure enough to move into and populate unfamiliar territory," Alperson-Afil said.
Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; editing by Alastair Macdonald