How did Neanderthals change their environment?

Even about 125,000 years ago, Neanderthals probably had an impact on their environment that is still evident today. This is suggested by a new study, stating that the landscapes around the former Neanderthal settlement in Saxony-Anhalt were significantly less densely forested than similar areas in the vicinity at the time of their settlement. According to the researchers, the activities of early humans could have been responsible for this, including making tools and using fire.

Today, humans are one of the biggest factors influencing the biology, geology and atmosphere of our planet. As a result of human activities, species become extinct, glaciers are melting and the carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere increases. But when did people first start making sustainable changes to their environment? Many researchers previously assumed that early hominin societies were too small and insignificant to leave behind permanent environmental changes. Others have argued that prehistoric hunters largely helped wipe out populations of certain species of megafauna.

Notes from pollen analyzes

A team led by Wil Roebroecks of Leiden University in the Netherlands has found evidence at the Neumark-Nord site in Saxony-Anhalt that Neanderthals did indeed shape their environment around 125,000 years ago. “Among the factors that shaped the vegetation structure in this lake landscape, we identified a significant environmental impact of human activities, including the use of fire,” the researchers said.

In the Neumark-Nord region, about ten kilometers south of Halle, groups of Neanderthals lived for about 2,000 years during the last interglacial period about 125,000 years ago. “The presence of hominins in Newmark Nord is evidenced by the large amounts of stone artifacts and modified bone fragments,” the researchers explained. To find out how much the presence of our first relatives affected the landscapes in which they lived, Robros and colleagues conducted analyzes of sediment and pollen, among other things. These indicate how vegetation has changed over thousands of years. They compared their results with samples from other nearby sites where, according to prior knowledge, Neanderthals were less present.

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Remarkably open plants for two millennia

RESULT: In the comparison sites between Gröbern and Grabenschütz, pollen analyzes indicated a closed forest area. However, the landscape in Neumark Nord is no match for the rest of the region. The scene here has been remarkably open for two millennia – exactly at the time when archaeological finds show that Neanderthals lived there. The coal deposits also showed the researchers that the forests were at least partially burned.

“The data are not accurate enough to determine whether Neanderthals migrated to the area because it was opened by natural fires, or whether the initial removal of forest vegetation was actually caused by Neanderthal fires,” the researchers explained. However, since vegetation remained open for two millennia and thus constituted an exception to the generally dense vegetation pattern in the region, they hypothesize that Neanderthals at least contributed to the preservation of the open landscape—perhaps in part by trampling on plants in their daily lives. . activities. But perhaps also intentionally through the clearing.

Possibly the oldest traces of early human influences

“The frequent lighting of campfires around the lakes, as well as other small-scale burning and hunting activities for wild animals, can, over time, alter the structure of vegetation cover and ecological communities in the area in such a way as to increase the available food resources over several generations,” the researcher suggests. “Whether or not Neanderthals played a role in the original opening of the vegetation, these conditions must have been beneficial to them, providing a wide range of useful and necessary resources that might have drawn them to the area, and they should have thus contributed to the conservation of these Circumstances “.

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If further studies confirm that it was Neanderthals who changed the landscape over thousands of years, this would be the first evidence of the formative influence of early humans on their environment. The earliest traces of human influence on vegetation structure to date came from Lake Malawi in East Africa. It is about 85,000 years old, and it belongs to our species Homo sapiens.

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

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