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Hunter-gatherers changed ecosystems 125,000 years ago

According to the findings of the interdisciplinary study, “Landscape modification by Last Interglacial Neanderthals,” by archaeologists from Leiden University and Monrepos Archaeological Research Centre and Museum for Human Behavioural Evolution, Neanderthals used fire to keep the landscape open and thus had a big impact on their local environment. The study was published in the journal Science Advances on December 15, 2021.

“Archaeologists have long been asking questions about the character and temporal depth of human intervention in our planet’s ecosystems. We are increasingly seeing very early, generally weak signs of this,” said Wil Roebroeks, Professor of Archaeology at Leiden University.

Neanderthal study
Excavation of a 125,000-year-old archaeological site at Neumark-Nord 2 near Halle, Germany, summer 2007. Photo courtesy of Wil Roebroeks, Leiden University ©.

These signs proved much stronger in research at a lignite quarry near Halle in Germany. Archaeological research has been carried out at this quarry, Neumark-Nord, in the last few decades, and alongside a huge amount of data about the early environment, abundant traces of Neanderthal activities have been found.

The authors of the study are Wil Roebroeks, Katharine MacDonald, Fulco Scherjon, Corrie Bakels, Lutz Kindler, Anastasia Nikulina, Eduard Pop, and Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser.

They present high-resolution paleoenvironmental and archaeological data from the Last Interglacial locality of Neumark-Nord (Germany). Among the factors that shaped vegetation structure and succession in this lake landscape, they identified a distinct ecological footprint of hominin activities, including fire use. They compare these data with evidence from archaeological and baseline sites from the same region. 

“Among other things, we found the remains of hundreds of slaughtered animals, surrounded by numerous stone tools and a huge amount of charcoal remains,” said Roebroeks.

Area kept open for 2,000 years

The traces were found in what 125,000 years ago was a forest area where not only prey such as horses, deer, and cattle, but also elephants, lions, and hyenas lived. This mixed deciduous forest stretched from the Netherlands to Poland. In several places in the area were lakes, and on the edges of some of these, traces of Neanderthals have been found, Roebroeks explained.

At the point in time when these Neanderthals turned up there, the closed forest made way for large open spaces, in part because of fires.

Flint artifacts excavated in the shore area of the small lake Neumark Nord 2. Photo courtesy of Eduard Pop, Leiden University ©.

“The question is, of course, whether it became open because of the arrival of hominins, or whether hominins came because it was open? However, we have found sufficient evidence to conclude that hunter-gatherers kept the area open for at least 2,000 years,” said Roebroeks.

Comparative research conducted by Leiden palaeobotanist Professor Corrie Bakels showed that at similar lakes in the area, where the same animals roamed, but where there are no traces of Neanderthals, the dense forest vegetation remained largely intact.

Until now it was generally thought that it was only when humans took up agriculture about 10,000 years ago that they began to shape their environment, for instance by cutting down trees to create fields. But many archaeologists believe it started much sooner, on a smaller scale, and according to Roebroeks, Neumark-Nord is the earliest example of such intervention.

The new research findings are not only important for archaeology, said Roebroeks, but also for disciplines involved in nature restoration.

“It also adds something to the behavioral spectrum of early hunter-gatherers. They weren’t simple ‘primal hippies’ who roamed the landscape picking fruit or hunting animals here and there. They helped shape their landscape,” he said.

Neanderthal study
Shells recovered from the sediments of the Neumark Nord 2 site, illustrating the excellent preservation at the site (shells of Valvata fluviatilis groeberi, size of shells 2-5 mm). Photo/©: Wim Kuijper, Leiden University

Major impact of fire

A previous study by Roebroeks and his research team showed that knowledge about fire already was being passed down by hominins at least 400,000 years ago.

“We shouldn’t be surprised if in future research we find traces that indicate that hominins had a major impact on their environment much earlier, on a local scale at least,” he added.

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