Scientists have long debated when humans and human ancestors started to dominate the natural world—a milestone in human history. New research suggests Neanderthals’ activities turned a forested area into grasslands nearly 125,000 years ago, providing the oldest evidence of land-altering behavior in ancient humans yet.
‘Archaeologists have long been asking questions about the character and temporal depth of human intervention in our planet’s ecosystems. We are increasingly seeing very early, generally weak signs of this,’ says Wil Roebroeks, Archaeology professor at Leiden University.
“We are increasingly seeing very early, generally weak signs of this.”
“Among other things, we found the remains of hundreds of slaughtered animals, surrounded by numerous stone tools and a huge amount of charcoal remains.”
Professor Roebroeks found abundant traces of Neanderthal activities at the Neumark-Nord site, which is located about 10 km south of the German city of Halle.
“Among other things, we found the remains of hundreds of slaughtered animals, surrounded by numerous stone tools and a huge amount of charcoal remains,” Professor Roebroeks said.
The dig at at Neumark-Nord near Halle, Germany
Open for 2,000 years
The traces were found in what 125,000 years ago was a forest area where not only prey such as horses, deer and cattle, but also elephants, lions and hyenas lived. This mixed deciduous forest stretched from the Netherlands to Poland. In several places in the area were lakes, and on the edges of some of these, traces of Neanderthals have been found, Roebroeks explains. At the point in time when these Neanderthals turned up there, the closed forest made way for large open spaces, in part due to fires.
“The question is, of course, whether it became open because of the arrival of hominins, or whether hominins came because it was open?” lead author Wil Roebroeks, an archaeologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, says in a press release. “However, we have found sufficient evidence to conclude that hunter-gatherers kept the area open for at least 2,000 years.”
Though the evidence suggests that Neanderthals manipulated their environment, the team is still unsure how forests turned into grasslands. There was an uptick in the presence of charcoal when Neanderthals moved into Neumark-Nord, so “it’s really tempting to imagine that that might have been Neanderthals burning the vegetation,” but precisely matching up the dates is tricky business, co-author Katherine MacDonald, an archaeologist at Leiden University.
It’s also difficult to tell the difference between a collection of small fires—like campfires—or large ones. But setting fires, hunting, building tools and making shelters all have large environmental impacts, which affected the landscape.
“It also adds something to the behavioral spectrum of early hunter-gatherers,” says Wil Roebroeks.
“Hunter-gatherers weren’t simply primal hippies who roamed the landscape picking fruit here and hunting animals there.”
“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, for instance by cutting down trees to create fields.”
“But many archaeologists believe it started much sooner, on a smaller scale, and Neumark-Nord is the earliest example of such intervention.”