Man discovered the use of fire and learned to control it for cooking purposes much earlier than it was thought before, evidence found in a cave in South Africa suggests.

It has widely been thought that Israel's Qesem Cave has the oldest evidence of fire uses by Homo sapiens and Neanderthals. It dates back to 300,000 to 400,000 years ago.

However, archaeologists at the Boston University claim to have found the oldest evidence at Wonderwerk Cave in Northern Cape Province, South Africa, that dates back to 1.2 million years ago.

The research published Monday in the online edition of USA's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) reveals that archaeologists found burnt bones and ash remains of burnt plants at the Wonderwork Cave, a rich archaeological site.

Further analysis of the remains proved that the burning took place in the cave during the early Acheulean occupation, approximately a million years ago.

To the best of our knowledge, this is the earliest secure evidence for burning in an archaeological context, said Francesco Berna, an archaeology professor at Boston University and the lead author of the research paper.

The remains were found about 30 meters from the present-day entrance to the cave. Researchers insist that the fire was fueled by plants residues, leaves and grasses, for the estimated heating temperatures of bones and sediments do not exceed 700 degrees Celsius.

The researchers are associating their find with Richard Wrangham's cooking hypothesis according to which, a human ancestor called Homo erectus ate cooked food and, therefore, was capable of controlling fire.

Though recent studies have supported the hypothesis that Homo erectus adapted to cooked food diet as early as approximately 1.9 million years ago, the evidence for controlled use of fire by them has not yet been found.

Claims for earliest evidence of fire use have been made for sites in Africa, Asia, and Europe earlier as well. However, Berna believes that Wonderwerk cave's evidence could provide more insight into the actual period when human developed the ability to control and use fire.

We believe microstratigraphic investigations at Wonderwerk cave and other early hominin sites in Asia and South and East Africa will have a significant impact in providing fundamental evidence for the appearance of use of fire and its role in hominin adaptation and evolution.