Neandertals took Stone Age landscaping to a previously unrecognized level.
These close human relatives transformed a forested area bordering two central European lake into an open landscape about 125,000 years back, according to Wil Roebroeks (Leiden University, the Netherlands) and his colleagues. Analyses of pollen, charcoal, animal fossils and other material previously unearthed at two ancient lake basins in Germany provide the oldest known evidence of hominids reshaping their environments, the scientists report December 15 in Science Advances.
The excavations were made at Neumark-Nord. Researchers believe that daily activities of the Neandertals there over the course of the year had a large environmental impact. These pursuits were carried out over a period of approximately 2,000 years. They included setting campfires as well as butchering meat, gathering wood, making tools, building shelters, and collecting wood.
We might be dealing with larger and less mobile groups of [Neandertals] than commonly acknowledged, Roebroeks says, thanks in part to warming temperatures after around 150,000 years ago that cleared ice sheets from resource-rich locations such as Neumark-Nord.
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His team cannot say if Neandertals set fires in order to clear large tracts at Neumark-Nord. This practice has been observed by some modern hunter-gatherers. Roebroeks suggests that the geological remains of small campfires might look similar to those of small fires.
Neumark-Nord’s finds are part of a continuing debate about when humans started to have a dominant influence on the natural environment. Some scientists regard this period as a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene (SN: 4/1/13). It is unclear when the Anthropocene began, and whether its roots go back to the Stone Age.
Regular fire use by members of the Homo genus began around 400,000 years ago (SN: 4/2/12). Evidence of human occupations that led to increased fire setting and shifts towards open habitats dates back to approximately 40,000 years ago (Australia); 45,000 years ago (Highland New Guinea); and 50,000 years ago (Borneo).
Analyses of lake cores and stone-tool sites in southern-central Africa indicate that fires set by increasing numbers of humans kept the landscape open even as rainy conditions conducive to forest growth developed around 85,000 years ago. Open environments still predominate in this part of Africa, Yale University paleoanthropologist Jessica Thompson and her colleagues reported May 5 in Science Advances. Humans and close human relatives like Neandertals have likely been [modifying] their ecosystems for a very long time, Thompson says.
1985 saw the discovery of ancient Neumark-Nord sediments by a large coal miner. German scientists then excavated a large lakeside location and completed the project in the mid-1990s. Between 2004 and 2008, the same team excavated another smaller site in a lake basin about 100 meters away from the original site.
According to Roebroeks and colleagues, pollen from these sites suggests that grasses were present in an open environment for a brief time between 2004 and 2008. Large numbers of stone artifacts some showing signs of having been heated, possibly to make finished edges sharper and animal bones displaying butchery marks date to the same time at Neumark-Nord, when Neandertals but not Homo sapiens inhabited Europe.
Stone tools and bone fragments displaying signs of heating, burned wood, charred seeds and dense patches of charcoal particles suggested that Neandertals had frequently set fires near the Neumark-Nord lakes.
Researchers previously found pollen from two other locations in the same mountainous region of Germany that suggested a limited Neandertal presence. Roebroeks believes this confirms Roebroeks’ view that Neandertals influenced the Neumark-Nord landscape, rather than settling there after forests have sunk.
Manuel Will, an archaeologist from Eberhard Karls University in Tbingen, Germany, agrees. Neandertal evidence from Neumark-Nord should be a wake-up call for the international scientific community to include archaeologists [studying] the Paleolithic record as part of any team trying to define and identify the beginning of the Anthropocene, says Will, who did not participate in the new study.