press release | 16 December 2021 (JGU/RGZM) 

Excavation of a 125,000-year-old archaeological site in Neumark-Nord near Halle in the summer of 2007: The remains of hundreds of large mammals, mainly horses and bovids, and about 20,000 stone artefacts were discovered in the uniquely preserved lake landscape. photo/©: Wil Roebroeks, Universität Leiden

Shells recovered from the sediments of the Neumark-Nord site, illustrating the excellent preservation at the site. The size of the shells is 2 to 5 millimeters. photo/©: Wim Kuijper, Universität Leiden

Residue obtained through fine mesh sieving of the sediments, illustrating the excellent preservation of organic remains: The picture is dominated by oospores of algae, roughly 1 millimeter in size and by charred seeds up to 3.9 millimeter in size. photo/©: Wim Kuijper, Universität Leiden

Flint artefacts excavated in the shore area of the small lake Neumark-Nord 2. Here about 20,000 flint artefacts and more than 118,000 bone fragments, the remains of butchered large mammals such as horses and bovids, were found on an area of about 500 square meters. photo/©: Eduard Pop, Universität Leiden/Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden

Pressemitteilung (PDF)

press release (PDF)

Neanderthals changed ecosystems 125 000 years ago

Mainz. Investigations in Neumark-Nord near Halle show: Neanderthals used fire to keep forested areas open as early as 125,000 years ago, and thus had a far greater impact on their local environment than previously thought. The 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) has now been published in the journal Science Advances.

Pressemitteilung (deutsch)

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.


Roebroeks, W., MacDonald, K., Scherjon, F., Bakels, C., Kindler, L., Nikulina, A., Pop, E., Gaudzinski-Windheuser, S. Landscape modification by last-interglacial Neanderthals. Science Advances Vol. 7, No. 51 (2021).



Prof. Dr. Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser (MONREPOS Archäologisches Forschungszentrum und Museum für menschliche Verhaltensevolution, Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Leibniz-Forschungsinstitut für Archäologie und Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz)

Further links (in german)

MONREPOS Archaeological Research Center and Museum for Human Behavioral Evolution

MONREPOS is both a museum and a research centre. As a branch of the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum Mainz, the Leibniz Research Institute for Archaeology, research in the field of Pleistocene and early Holocene archaeology has been conducted at Schloss Monrepos for over 30 years. The research centre is closely linked to the Institute for Pre- and Protohistory at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz.

Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum | Leibniz Research Institute for Archaeology

As a Leibniz Research Institute and Museum of Archaeology, the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum (RGZM) studies the material legacies from 2.6 million years of human history. The aim is to use archaeological finds and findings to demonstrate and understand human behaviour and actions, human activity and thinking, and the development and change of societies. The RGZM operates worldwide and has so far conducted successful and comprehensive research in various regions of Africa, Asia and Europe, with a geographical focus on Central and Southern Europe as well as the Mediterranean region. The unique concentration of archaeological, scientific, conservative and information-technological competences, combined with important workshops, laboratories and archives, makes it possible to conduct object-oriented research on the archaeology of the Old World (Asia, Africa, Europe) from the beginnings of human history to modern times. In five interdisciplinary and cross-temporal research fields, fundamental questions of human history are investigated, ranging from the evolution of our behaviour to complex social systems and human-environment relations. By far the largest part of human history has been handed down to us only through material legacies and traces of human activity. This legacy thus represents the fundamental source of knowledge about our biological, social, cultural and economic development.