While most scientists believe humans discovered fire millions of years ago, there has been ongoing debate about when controlled use of fire -- central to the rise of human culture -- began.
Writing in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the researchers describe the hearth in the Qesem Cave, an archaeological site near present-day Rosh Ha'ayin, which they say is the earliest evidence of unequivocal repeated fire building over a period of time.
The finding, dated to almost 300,000 years ago. also suggests the prehistoric humans at the site already had a highly advanced social structure and intellectual capacity, the researchers said.
A thick deposit of wood ash in the center of the cave, mixed in with bits of bone and soil that had been heated to very high temperatures, proved the area had been the site of a large hearth, they researchers said.
Around and inside the hearth were a large number of flint tools used for cutting meat, said Ruth Shahack-Gross of the Kimmel Center for Archaeological Science at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel.
"These findings help us to fix an important turning point in the development of human culture -- that in which humans first began to regularly use fire both for cooking meat and as a focal point-- a sort of campfire -- for social gatherings," she said.
The hearth and the organization of various "household" activities into different parts of the cave points to an organization of space -- and a thus kind of social order -- that is typical of modern humans, the researchers said.