How Neanderthals changed their environment

As early as about 125,000 years ago, Neanderthals likely had an environmental impact that can be verified today. This is suggested by new research that the landscape around the former Neanderthal settlement in Saxony-Anhalt was clearly less forested than comparable places nearby at the time of settlement. According to the researchers, early human activities, including the manufacture of tools and the use of fire, may have been responsible for this.

Today, humans are one of the greatest influences on the biology, geology and atmosphere of our planet. Species are dying out as a result of human activity, glaciers are melting and the atmosphere’s CO2 content is increasing. But when did people first start making permanent changes to their environment? Many researchers assumed that the early hominin communities were too small and irrelevant to leave behind any permanent ecological changes. Others argued that even prehistoric hunters helped significantly reduce the population of some species of megafauna.

Information from pollen analyzes

A team led by Wil Roebroecks of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands found evidence at the Neumark-Nord site in Saxony-Anhalt that Neanderthals shaped their environment around 125,000 years ago. “Among the factors that shaped the structure of vegetation in this lake landscape, we identify a clear ecological footprint of human activity, including the use of fire” – the scientists report.

In the Neumark-Nord area about ten kilometers south of Halle, groups of Neanderthals lived during the last interglacial period about 125,000 years ago for a period of about 2,000 years. “The presence of hominins in Neumark-Nord is demonstrated by the large amount of stone artifacts and modified bone fragments,” the researchers explain. To find out to what extent the presence of our early relatives affected the landscape in which they lived, Roebroecks and his colleagues analyzed sediment and pollen, among others. They show how vegetation has changed over the millennia. They compared their results with samples from other nearby locations where the Neanderthals were less present to date.

Distinct, open vegetation for two millennia

Result: at the comparative sites of Gröbern and Grabenschütz, pollen analyzes indicated a closed, densely forested environment. On the other hand, the landscape in Neumark-Nord did not fit in with the rest of the region. Here, the landscape has been clearly open for over two millennia – exactly when Neanderthals lived there, according to archaeological finds. Charcoal deposits also showed researchers that the forests were at least partially burnt.

‘The data are not precise enough to determine whether Neanderthals migrated to the area because it was opened up by natural fires, or whether the first logging of forested vegetation was actually caused by Neanderthal fires,’ the researchers explain. However, since the vegetation had remained open for two millennia, an exception to the region’s generally dense vegetation, they hypothesized that the Neanderthals at least helped keep the landscape open – perhaps partly by accident by trampling on plants during their daily activities. Possibly also deliberately by clearing.

Probably the oldest traces of early human influence

“The repeated lighting of fires around lakes, as well as other small-scale burning and hunting activities, may have altered the vegetation structure and ecological communities in the area over time in a way that has increased the available food resources over several generations,” suggest researcher. “Whether or not the Neanderthals played a role in the initial opening of the vegetation, these conditions may have been beneficial to them, providing a wide range of useful and necessary resources that could lure them to the area and for that.” “.

If further research confirms that it was indeed Neanderthals who changed the landscape over thousands of years, this would be the earliest evidence of a shaping influence of the early humans on their environment. The oldest traces of human influence on the vegetation structure so far came from Lake Malawi in East Africa. They are about 85,000 years old and come from Homo sapiens – our species.

Source: Wil Roebroeks (Leiden University, The Netherlands) et al., Science Advances, doi: 10.1126 / sciadv.abj5567

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