The formation of fire residues associated with hunter-gatherers in humid tropical environments: A geo-ethnoarchaeological perspective

12 Sep 2017

Tropical forests have been an important human habitat and played a significant role in early human dispersal and evolution. Likewise, the use of fire, besides being one of the exceptional characteristics of humans, serves as a marker for human evolution. While the use of fire by prehistoric hunter-gatherers is relatively well documented in arid and temperate environments, the archaeological evidence in humid tropical environment is to date very limited. We first review the archaeological evidence for hunter-gatherer use of fire in humid tropical environments and suggest that better understanding of formation processes is required. We present a geo-ethnoarchaeological study from South India, involving ethnography, excavations and laboratory-based analyses in order to build a new framework to study fire residues in humid tropical forests associated with hunter-gatherer's use of fire. Ethnographic observations point to a dynamic and ephemeral use of hearths. Hearths location were dictated by the social and ever-changing social dynamics of the site. The hearths deposited small amount of residues which were later swept on a daily basis, re-depositing ash and charcoal in waste areas and leaving only a microscopic signal in the original location. Particular acidic conditions and intensive biological activity within tropical sediments result in the complete dissolution of ash and bones while favouring the preservation of charcoal and phytoliths. Consequently, the identification of fire residues in humid tropical forests and the reconstruction of the human use of fire must involve multi-proxy microscopic analysis to detect its micro-signatures.