It is a little known fact that bat poo can play merry hell with the work of archaeologists.
Chiefly because it can spontaneously combust.
I should specify that we are talking about neolithic bat poo here. Poo from the bats living at the same time as our ancient ancestors, Homo Erectus.
Picture the scene.
The neolithic bat has a little rest stop; maybe his friends come over and join the fun. Thus develops a pile of steaming poo which is dark, not light, and matt, not shiny; so it attracts the rays of the sun something awful.
I have no idea about the power of the sun then, compared to the power of the sun today. Was it hotter then, when it was younger, one million years ago ? Its youthful energy surges into the steaming pile, and inevitably, it bursts into flame: an exuberant celebration of the sun’s power.
Homo Erectus shuffles past on his way to find some mammoth for breakfast. Food has never been much fun, he thinks, if truth be told. Raw greasy meat: it’s a living. But there’s no passion in it. No artistry. And its all very chewy.
And then he sees the bat poo.
And his 600 cubic centimetres of brain volume may just have clocked that flame and thought: Hmmm. I fancy a well-done mammoth steak.
But one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Pan to the 21st century, where archaeologists are scratching their heads, endeavouring to divine precisely when man made the first fire.
Because bat poo throws a spanner in the works. All over the globe there is evidence of small bat-poo fires near neolithic cave-settlements, but no-one knows whether it’s man-engineered or just a lot of very enthusiastic bats in the sun.
Only at bat-poo-free sites can evidence be truly obtained: and just such a site has created a new frontrunner in the friendly international competition entitled: who made fire first?
Inscrutable China has been credited for a very long time with evidence that its early peoples made fire 400,000 years ago. The provenance of a find in Israel about 790,000 years ago is under debate: but the good neanderthals of Zhoukoudian, about 45 kilometres south-west of Bejing, left us some indisputable evidence.
Because when man cooks meat, the composition of the bones changes.
Bones are filled with hydroxylapatite. It’s what makes them strong. Ordinarily they are plate-like crystals; but when they are heated to high temperatures they change shape: to long needle- like crystals.
One look at the Chinese bones and: bingo. Someone had been having a barbecue.
So China was there at the front, carrying the ancient I Made Fire First torch, when who should put on a sprint and streak past at an alarming rate but South Africa.
The Wonderwerk Caves, in South Africa’s Northern Provinces, live up to their name, with evidence that man has been living there for more than two million years.
And earlier this year, an article was published by an international team of scientists in the Procedings of the National Academy of Sciences chronicling evidence that fire was being made and used by man a million years ago.