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

David E. Friesem, Noa Lavi, Marco Madella, Elisabetta Boaretto, P. Ajithparsad, Charles French

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)85-99
Number of pages15
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
StatePublished - 1 Sep 2017
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We are indebted to the Nayaka people who welcomed us and let us live with them and study their sites and ways of living. We would especially like to thank Carolina Mallol for her encouragement to develop this research and to the participants at the Ethnoarchaeology of Fire Symposium in the University of La Laguna for a fruitful discussion. We also thank Ximena Villagran and Manuel Arroyo-Kalin for their comments that helped to improve the manuscript. We thank Tonko Rajkovaca for his help in the production of thin sections. This work was supported by the People Programme (Marie Curie Actions) of the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007?2013) under REA agreement n? 623293 granted to D.E.F. at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge. Radiocarbon dating was also funded by the Exilarch's Foundation for the DANGOOR Research Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory (D-REAMS).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 Elsevier Ltd


  • Fire
  • Geoarchaeology
  • Humid tropical environment
  • Hunter-gatherers
  • Pleistocene-Holocene
  • Site formation processes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology
  • Geology


Dive into the research topics of 'The formation of fire residues associated with hunter-gatherers in humid tropical environments: A geo-ethnoarchaeological perspective'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this