Neanderthals changed ecosystems 125,000 years ago

Archaeological research near the German city of Halle show that Neanderthals used fire to keep the landscape open

16 December 2021

Hunter-gatherers caused ecosystems to change 125,000 years ago. These are the findings of an interdisciplinary study by archaeologists from Leiden University in collaboration with researchers from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) and Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Leibniz Research Institute for Archaeology (RGZM). According to their study, Neanderthals used fire to keep the landscape open and thus had a big impact on their local environment. The study has been published in Science Advances.

Archaeologists have long been asking questions about the character and temporal depth of human intervention in our planet's ecosystems. Research at a lignite quarry near Halle in Germany now provided important evidence here. "Archaeological research has been carried out at this quarry, Neumark-Nord, in the last few decades. Alongside a huge amount of data about the early environment, abundant traces of Neanderthal activities have been found," said Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser, Professor of Pleistocene Archaeology at JGU and Director of the MONREPOS Archaeological Research Center and Museum for Human Behavioral Evolution, an institution of the RGZM. "Among other things, we found the remains of hundreds of slaughtered animals, surrounded by numerous stone tools and a huge amount of charcoal remains."

Hunter-gatherers shaped their landscape by keeping forest areas open for 2,000 years

The traces were found in what 125,000 years ago was a forest area. Not only prey such as horses, deer, and cattle, but also elephants, lions, and hyenas lived here according to zooarchaeological studies by Dr. Lutz Kindler, a researcher at RGZM, and Professor Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser. This mixed deciduous forest stretched from the Netherlands to Poland. There were lakes in several places in the area and traces of Neanderthals have been found on the edges of some of these lakes. When the Neanderthals turned up there, the closed forest made way for large open spaces, in part due to fires. The question whether it became open because of the arrival of hominins or whether hominins came because it was open is still being debated. However, the study found sufficient evidence to conclude that hunter-gatherers kept the area open for at least 2,000 years.

Comparative research conducted by Leiden paleobotanist Professor Corrie Bakels has shown that at similar lakes in the area with the same animals roaming but without 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 – by cutting down trees to create fields, for example. But many archaeologists believe it started much earlier, on a smaller scale, with Neumark-Nord being the earliest example of such intervention. The new research findings are not only important for archaeology, but also for disciplines involved in nature restoration, for instance. It shows that early hunter-gatherers shaped their landscape and it is highly likely that researchers will find additional indications that hominins had a major impact on their environment much earlier than previously assumed.