Neanderthals Turned Forest Into Grassland 125,000 Years Ago
The Neumark-Nord site in Germany shows us that Neanderthals occupied this lakeside site for over 2,000 years ago and molded it from a lush forest into grasslands
Around 125,000 years ago, a site we now know as Neumark-Nord in Germany, was a forested, ancient lakeside campground. It was inhabited by Neanderthals for over 2,000 years. Their settlement left behind remnants of butchering game, stone tools, shelters, and campfires.
A new paper in Science Advances documents these findings but also demonstrates that these Neanderthals terraformed this site from a lush woodland lakebed to a grassland1.
Over the two millennia of Neanderthal habitation, the floral analysis of Neumark-Nord shows a transition from less and less woodland material and more pollen indicative of grasses, herbs. These are hallmarks of a transition to an open landscape. 125,000 years ago this area was warm and moist, so this was not a naturally occurring ecological shift
The stone tools and bone fragments also support this as they show signs of being heated. Countless, small campfires and charcoal show these Neanderthals frequently set fire. The remnants of this suggest they didn’t clear large tracks of the forest but rather had many small campfires over a long time which contributed to deforestation.
We understand fire use to have been utilized by early Homo around 400,000 years ago. There are reports that fire was utilized even earlier, perhaps 1,000,000 years ago with evidence from a site called Wonderwerk in South Africa2. Earlier this year, we saw evidence from northern Malawi that earlier Homo sapiens were molding their ecosystems in a similar fashion 85,000 years ago3.
But the Neumark-Nord site is 40,000 years older and a site where Neanderthals occupied for over two millennia. Not only does this indicate Neanderthals were terraforming, but it also implies that there were some groups of Neanderthals that were larger, more sedentary than what we consider them to be. It is safe to say that based upon this paper and the one from earlier this year, we now have evidence that shows humans and their ancestors were modifying ecosystems for a very long time.
Roebroeks, W., MacDonald, K., Scherjon, F., Bakels, C., Kindler, L., Nikulina, A., Pop, E., & Gaudzinski-Windheuser, S. (2021). Landscape modification by Last Interglacial Neanderthals. Science Advances, 7(51). https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abj5567
Berna, F., Goldberg, P., Horwitz, L. K., Brink, J., Holt, S., Bamford, M., & Chazan, M. (2012). Microstratigraphic evidence of in situ fire in the Acheulean strata of Wonderwerk Cave, Northern Cape province, South Africa. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109(20), E1215-20. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1117620109
Thompson, J. C., Wright, D. K., Ivory, S. J., Choi, J.-H., Nightingale, S., Mackay, A., Schilt, F., Otárola-Castillo, E., Mercader, J., Forman, S. L., Pietsch, T., Cohen, A. S., Arrowsmith, J. R., Welling, M., Davis, J., Schiery, B., Kaliba, P., Malijani, O., Blome, M. W., … Gomani-Chindebvu, E. (2021). Early human impacts and ecosystem reorganization in southern-central Africa. Science Advances, 7(19). https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abf9776