An excavation in Germany appears to have uncovered the oldest evidence of Pleistocene hunter-gatherers making impactful alterations to the local environment.
Whether it be clearing forests, damming rivers, or causing dramatic reductions in fauna, altering ecosystems and environments is something that humans do. Anthropogenic, or human-caused, global warming is quite possibly the most profound example of this, but only one of many. Scientists aren’t entirely sure when humans first acquired this capacity — the ability to impact the local environment in meaningful and discernable ways — but new research published in Science Advances suggests anthropogenic footprints, though highly local, began to appear at least 125,000 years ago, and that Neanderthals were responsible.
That hominins have been reshaping their environments for a long time is hardly surprising. Research from earlier this year showed that modern humans living around Lake Malawi in Africa were impacting the landscape around 85,000 years ago. This latest paper, led by archaeologist Wil Roebroeks from Leiden University, is further evidence — and possibly the earliest evidence — that Pleistocene hunter-gatherers were capable of changing the ecosystems they inhabited by virtue of their daily activities, despite their low population densities.
The newly described evidence was found at the Neumark-Nord site in Germany near Halle (it’s about a two-and-a-half-hour drive southwest of Berlin). Neanderthals settled this area during the last interglacial — the period between the last Ice Age and the one before that. When the Neanderthals first arrived at Neumark-Nord some 125,000 years ago, the area featured a thick deciduous forest dominated by oak trees, according to the research. Living alongside small lakes, the Neanderthals called this place home for 2,000 years (we know these people were Neanderthals because modern humans had not yet reached this part of Europe).
Fast forward to today and Neumark-Nord has been split open by lignite mining, exposing the ancient sediments below. Roebroeks’s team managed to explore upwards of 62 acres (25 hectares) at Neumark-Nord, finding both paleoenvironmental and archaeological evidence, such as ancient pollen, charcoal, charred seeds, and flint tools, all dating back to this time period. Similar samples dating to the same time period were taken from the nearby sites of Gröbern and Grabschütz, allowing for a comparative analysis.
As the analysis of the data showed, the arrival of Neanderthal hunter-gatherers in the area coincided with a “significant” charcoal peak, a “sharp drop” in the number of deciduous trees, and a “rise of upland herbs and plants,” indicating the influence of hominin activity, as Roebroeks wrote in an email. The landscape inhabited by Neanderthals, once closed and forested, became strikingly open. Meanwhile, the outlying areas — the aforementioned Gröbern and Grabschütz sites — remained thickly forested, according to the new research. Neumark-Nord stayed this way for 2,000 years, coinciding with the Neanderthal presence.
An excerpt from the new paper describes how the Neanderthals were capable of altering their local environment to such a significant extent:
Given their prolonged and distinct presence at Neumark-Nord, it is probable that Neanderthals created and maintained a certain vegetation openness, simply by their …presence around these water bodies, by trampling and clearing vegetation during activities in the shore areas. These activities included hunting and game processing [the butchering of animals], lighting fires, collecting flint and other rocks … for their lithic [stone] technology, and gathering wood for fuel and for making tools like spears and digging sticks, and possibly for building structures. Repetitive lighting of campfires around the lakes as well as other small-scale burning activities and the hunting of game animals may, over time, have reshaped vegetation structure and ecological communities in the area, in ways that, over multiple generations, increased the food resources available.
Plants were of crucial importance to the Neanderthal diet, as humans cannot subsist on meat alone. Hazelnut, acorn, and blackthorn (also known as sloe plum) were the likely sources of needed carbohydrates, nutrients, and calories. The “increase in upland herbs and grasses,” including “wild relatives of wheat and barley, must have enabled easy access to grass seeds, now well established as a widespread component of the Neanderthal diet,” the scientists wrote.
The paper avoided any hints that Neanderthals deliberately used fire to clear vegetation. Roebroeks said it’s currently impossible to tell from the evidence if Neanderthals moved to the area because it had been cleared by natural wildfires, or if the observed dearth of vegetation was caused by Neanderthal burning activities. In his email, Roebroeks admitted this is an “obvious” limitation of the new study.
“What we do know is that once Neandertals are in the area, they are using fire on their campsites for a variety of activities, and we find indications for anthropogenic fire use at many locations during an approximately 2,000 year long period,” Roebroeks explained. That said, and as the scientists write in their study, “it is very unlikely that herbivores alone would have initiated and maintained open vegetation at Neumark-Nord” over the observed time span.
The use of fire dramatically boosted hominin’s ability to reshape the environment. Roebroeks said this started around 400,000 years ago, and the case presented in the new paper is a possible example of “the earlier stages of such small-scale fire-assisted reshaping, with earlier cases to be expected.” Fire use among hominins may date as far back as 1.5 million years ago, but Roebroeks’s point is well taken. We also know that Neanderthals were regular users of the flame, and that they were capable of starting fires themselves, so they weren’t reliant on wildfires as a source.
The new paper carries important implications for our understanding of Neanderthal behaviour. It suggests Neanderthals were clearly capable of altering local vegetation, whether deliberately or accidentally, and they were doing so some 125,000 years ago at the earliest. The new data also suggests some Last Interglacial Neanderthals lived in groups that were larger and less mobile than previously assumed, or at least that’s the case for Neanderthals living in Neumark-Nord, which Roebroeks referred to as a “magnet location.”
Future work will include excavations at other areas in the region and attempts to extract ancient DNA from the sediments, which would paint a clearer picture of the plants and animals local to the area.
More: New evidence suggests Neanderthals were capable of starting fires.