Science & Technology

Ancient humans: First evidence that Neanderthals cleared a forest


When Neanderthals lived at a site called Neumark-Nord in Germany, the region had far fewer trees than surrounding areas, suggesting they may have cleared the forest on purpose



Humans



15 December 2021

Excavation of a 125,000-year-old archaeological site at Neumark-Nord 2 near Halle, Germany, summer 2007. The excavation of this specific lake shore site, well-preserved in fine-grained water laid deposits, yielded the cut-marked remains of hundreds of large mammals, mainly horses and bovids, and about 20,000 stone artefacts.

A lakeside archaeological site at Neumark-Nord in Germany

Wil Roebroeks, Leiden University

Neanderthals may have reshaped part of the European landscape 125,000 years ago, clearing trees to create a more open environment in which to live. It is the oldest evidence of a hominin having landscape-level effects.

The indications come from an archaeological site called Neumark-Nord in Germany. About 130,000 years ago, great ice sheets retreated, making Neumark-Nord liveable until the ice advanced again 115,000 years ago. During that 15,000-year warm spell, Neanderthals moved into the area, perhaps attracted by a series of lakes in the region.

Neanderthals lived throughout Europe for hundreds of thousands of years, so it seems likely that they had impacts on the environment, says Katharine MacDonald at Leiden University in the Netherlands. “We knew that they were effective hunters, so they were clearly occupying a niche where they could compete with the other carnivores around quite effectively.”

MacDonald and her colleagues compiled data from the warm period on the different plant species preserved at the site, as well as charcoal deposits left by fires. Compared with neighbouring sites where Neanderthals didn’t live, the team found a decrease in the tree cover. While neighbouring areas were densely forested, Neumark-Nord “would have been a lot more light and open, and probably more varied as well”, says MacDonald.

Modern humans have altered landscapes in similar ways, but the evidence is largely limited to the past 50,000 years. “It’s the first case where it’s been shown for Neanderthals,” says MacDonald.

It isn’t clear how this happened. There is a peak in charcoal around when Neanderthals arrived, so “it’s really tempting to imagine that that might have been Neanderthals burning the vegetation”, says MacDonald. But she says the dates can’t be resolved precisely enough, so it could be that a natural wildfire opened up the vegetation and Neanderthals arrived in the aftermath.

We also know that Neanderthals made advanced stone tools and that they used them to chop wood. “But I don’t know that there’s any direct evidence for actually cutting down a tree,” says MacDonald.

Compared with other Neanderthal sites, Neumark-Nord seems to have been settled relatively permanently, perhaps even all year round. Neanderthals aren’t known for doing that, says MacDonald. “They are often seen as being quite mobile, and this is quite an unusual site.”

It may be that the open landscape, coupled with the lakes, attracted a lot of large animals for them to hunt – so they had no need to move, she says.

Journal reference: Science Advances, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abj5567

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