Study of California’s Channel Islands Hints at Early Human Use of Fire

Jun 23, 2016

Scientists have found evidence of what could be the earliest known use of fire by humans in North America. A scientist at Northern Arizona University is part of the team that sampled ancient charcoal on the Channel Islands, off the coast of southern California.

Channel Islands National Park
Credit U.S. National Park Service


Scientists wanted to know if Paleo-Indians on the islands used fire as a tool, for example, to burn the landscape and encourage certain plant growth. 

Scott Anderson of Northern Arizona University is one of the study’s authors. He says the findings show fires burned naturally on the landscape well before people arrived some 13,000 years ago, “but during that period of time when people are just becoming established, there’s a little bit elevated amount of charcoal,” Anderson says. “And that coincidence leads us to believe that perhaps humans might have possibly been impacting their landscape like that.”  

Anderson cautions the evidence is circumstantial. But he says people in Europe and Asia used fire by this time, and likely brought the knowledge with them when they migrated to North America.

The study appeared in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.