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[Translate to Englisch:] Ausgrabung einer 125.000 Jahre alten archäologischen Fundstelle in Neumark-Nord bei Halle im Sommer 2007: In der einzigartig erhaltenen Seenlandschaft wurden die Überreste von Hunderten großer Säugetiere, vor allem Pferde und Rinder, sowie etwa 20.000 Steinartefakte entdeckt. Foto/©: Wil Roebroeks, Universität Leiden

Molluskenschalen, die aus den Sedimenten der Fundstelle Neumark-Nord geborgen wurden, zeigen, wie hervorragend diese Fundstelle erhalten ist. Die Größe der Schalen beträgt 2 bis 5 Millimeter. Foto/©: Wim Kuijper, Universität Leiden

Die Rückstände nach einer feinmaschigen Siebung der Sedimente veranschaulichen die hervorragende Erhaltung der organischen Reste: Das Bild dominieren Oosporen von Algen in der Größe von etwa einem Millimeter und verkohlte Samen, die bis zu 3,9 Millimeter groß sind. Foto/©: Wim Kuijper, Universität Leiden

Feuersteinartefakte vom Uferbereich des kleinen Sees Neumark-Nord 2: Hier wurden auf einer Fläche von ca. 500 Quadratmetern etwa 20.000 Feuersteinartefakte und mehr als 118.000 Knochenfragmente gefunden, die Überreste von geschlachteten Großsäugern wie Pferden und Rindern. Foto/©: Eduard Pop, Universität Leiden/Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden

Neanderthals changed ecosystems 125 000 years ago

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.

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.

Publication (open access)

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).