Written by by Staff Writer at CNN
New evidence shows that the current Dorset fire has been burning for a whopping 4,000 years — a long time in human times.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge have sequenced the genomes of the wood from the Dorset fires, finding a similar pattern to those produced by the infamous Black Death plague in the 13th century.
The most comprehensive analysis of the cause of the Black Death, whose victims lay dead for as long as a year, has yet to be completed.
The new analysis instead helped identify a substantial ancient fire, and the type of wood that burned on it.
In the present study, released on Saturday, one of the researchers, David Scott, told CNN the discovery had strengthened speculation that the practice of charcoal burning — a handy way of recycling firewood — was relatively new.
Katerina Mitroglou Credit: University of Cambridge
“Previous results suggested charcoal had become increasingly widespread as late as the 13th century, but this is more likely simply a consequence of firewood convergence across Europe in the 16th century,” said Scott, who is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Cambridge.
“What we have found here indicates that charcoal still plays a very significant role, accounting for about 70% of all fires across Europe, but in a pre-European settlement environment.
“If you look around Europe, you’ll find even the very same sites are now regularly clocked up with massive fires caused by burning charcoal.”
This research provides new insight into an age-old question — ‘How long did it burn?’
To establish how long the practice of charcoal burning had been in existence, the scientists looked at the genomes of the wood — known as hockwood, which is typically associated with Early Medieval burial sites.
Though hockwood is derived from trees in the Poaceae family, which was common in early medieval times, the fossils of the clonal lineages — which generally share a genetic link to modern charcoal fires — had not been found, the researchers said.
Genetic analysis revealed that hockwood (aka hockgrasses) were historically a common form of charcoal and were regularly burned in European burial sites
To identify specific genetic links between the Ancient and Medieval fires, the scientists looked at the genomes of the hockwood plant — also known as the “eternal ring” — which was of Native American origin.
They found that these clonal lineages of the plant were genetically likely to have evolved to be closely related to the European dudgeon (also known as toadwood), a type of charcoal which is now available commercially.
The divergence dates of the ancient and modern fires range from 43,000 to 60,000 years, far outstripping earlier estimations, according to the researchers.
For David Laughton, senior author and head of the department of physiology at the University of Cambridge, this new evidence provided new insight into an age-old question — “How long did it burn?”
“The ancient charcoal fires at Dorset were devastating, they were catastrophic fires, burning for millennia at one site, and playing a fundamental role in the early rise of dudgeon charcoal use as a material of use in graveyards and other structures,” he said.