Neanderthals changed ecosystems 125,000 years ago – weren’t ‘primitive hippies’

Hunter-gatherers modified ecosystems 125,000 years ago. These are the results of an interdisciplinary study carried out by archaeologists from Leiden University in collaboration with other researchers. Neanderthals used fire to keep the landscape open and thus had a significant impact on their local environment. The study was published in the journal Scientists progress on December 15, 2021.

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

“Archaeologists have long wondered about the character and temporal depth of human intervention in the ecosystems of our planet. We are increasingly seeing very early, usually weak, signs of this,” says Wil Roebroeks, professor of archeology at Leiden University.

Archaeological site of Neumark-Nord 2

Excavation of a 125,000 year old archaeological site at Neumark-Nord 2 near Halle, Germany, summer 2007. Credit: University of Leiden

These signs turned out to be much stronger during research in a lignite quarry near Halle in Germany. Archaeological research has been carried out at this quarry, Neumark-Nord, over the past decades, and alongside a huge amount of data on the early environment, abundant traces of Neanderthal activities have been found. “Among other things, we found the remains of hundreds of slaughtered animals, surrounded by numerous stone tools and a huge amount of charcoal remains.”

Neumark-Nord 2 shells

Shells recovered from the sediments of the Neumark-Nord 2 site. Credit: University of Leiden

Open for 2000 years

The tracks were found in what 125,000 years ago was a forest area where not only prey such as horses, deer and cattle lived, but also elephants, lions and hyenas. This mixed deciduous forest stretched from the Netherlands to Poland. In several places in the region there were lakes, and on the edges of some of them traces of Neanderthals were found, says Roebroeks. By the time these Neanderthals landed there, the closed forest gave way to large open spaces, partly because of the fires.

flint artifacts

Flint artifacts discovered in the riparian area of ​​the small lake. Credit: University of Leiden

“The question is, of course, did it become open because of the arrival of hominids, or did the hominids come because it was open? However, we found enough evidence to conclude that hunter-gatherers kept the area open for at least 2,000 years. Comparative research by Leiden paleobotanist Professor Corrie Bakels has shown that in similar lakes in the region, where the same animals roamed but there are no traces of Neanderthals, dense forest vegetation remained largely intact.

“Hunter-gatherers weren’t just ‘primitive hippies’ who roamed the landscape to gather fruit here and hunt animals there.” —Wil Roebroeks

Until now, it was generally thought that it was only when humans took up agriculture around 10,000 years ago that they began to shape their environment, for example by felling trees to create fields. But many archaeologists believe it started much earlier, on a smaller scale, and according to Roebroeks, Neumark-Nord is the first example of such an intervention. The new research results are not only important for archaeology, says Roebroeks, but also for disciplines involved in nature restoration, for example. “It also adds something to the behavioral spectrum of early hunter-gatherers. They weren’t just “primitive hippies” who roamed the landscape picking fruit here and hunting animals there. They helped shape their landscape.

Stoneworts Oospores

Oospores of stoneworts (algae), about 1 mm in size, and charred seeds. Credit: University of Leiden

Major fire impact

A previous study by Roebroeks and his research team showed that knowledge about fire was already transmitted by hominins at least 400,000 years ago. “It should come as no surprise if in future research we find traces that indicate that hominins had a major impact on their environment much earlier, at least on a local scale.”

Reference: “Landscape modification by Last Interglacial Neandertals” by Wil Roebroeks, Katharine MacDonald, Fulco Scherjon, Corrie Bakels, Lutz Kindler, Anastasia Nikulina, Eduard Pop and Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser, December 15, 2021, Scientists progress.
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abj5567