New evidence has been found that Homo erectus, human ancestors dating back up to 1.8 million years,used fire. (Reuters / David Mdzinarishvil)

Evidence of human ancestors using controlled fire one million years ago has been discovered by archaeologists.

The findings, based on ash and charred bone discovered in the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa's kalahari Desert, appear to show the use of fire by early species of man, such as Homo erectus.

An international team led by the University of Toronto and Hebrew University, made the discovery in the cave that had previously been found to contain extensive records of human occupation.

"The analysis pushes the timing for the human use of fire back by 300,000 years, suggesting that human ancestors, as early as Homo erectus, may have begun using fire as part of their way of life," said Michael Chazan, anthropologist, co-director of the project and director of the University of Toronto Archaeology Centre.

Modern humans are thought to date back only around 200,000 years, while Homo erectus (upright man) dates back to between 1.3 and 1.8 million years.

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that the items burnt in the fire were not heated higher than 704C. This level of heat would have been created by the burning of grasses and leaves.

Chazan claimed that the control of fire represented a "major turning point in human evolution", allowing ancestors to stay warm, protect themselves from predators at night and perhaps cook food.

The project was co-directed by Chazan and Loira Kolska Horwitz of Hebrew University, while it was the analysis of sediment recovered from the cave near the edge of the Kalahari by lead authors Francesco Berna and Paul Goldberg of Boston University that unearthed the burnt fragments.

They concluded that the ashand burnt bone fragments were not swept into the cave by water or wind, while surface discolouration suggested the site of the fire.