According to standard notions of human evolution, the controlled use of fire represented a key turning point in the development of modern humans from ape-like ancestors. So, evolutionary paleoanthropologists have been interested in pinpointing when humans began using fire. New evidence from South Africa’s Wonderwerk cave has established that someone was burning wood and bones much earlier than widely thought. But is its age assignment trustworthy?

A report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences assigned the stratum to an ancient and long lasting time period called the Acheulean.

Until this discovery, most had believed that man’s use of fire had evolved perhaps 700,000 years ago, but the archaeological stratum inside the cave contains tiny charred remains dated to within approximately 290,000 years of one million years ago. The study authors wrote that this is “a time range that fits with current understanding of the chronological position of the early Acheulean within the ESA [Earlier Stone Age] in Southern Africa.”1

What would these researchers have done with age estimates that did not fit the consensus? Discordant ages are routinely discarded or explained away as contaminants. These kinds of dates are systematically hand-fitted to the pre-existing evolutionary dating scheme.2

Study authors mentioned that their age “fits with current understanding”—betraying their circular evolutionary age dating procedures….

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