A new study has revealed that it was Neanderthals and not modern humans who were the first to change the world around them. Based on clearings at a German site named Neumark-Nord, Neanderthals may have purposely gotten rid of the trees approximately 125,000 years ago by using tools or even fire. They would have done this in order to have more space for them to live. This is in fact the earliest evidence of a hominin altering the environment around them and the first ever proof of Neanderthals doing so.
The archaeological site is very interesting as it became habitable about 130,000 years ago when the ice sheets moved away until returning approximately 115,000 years ago. During those 15,000 years of being a livable site with several lakes, Neanderthals occupied the area.
Since they lived around Europe for many thousands of years, it makes sense that they had some sort of effect on the environment around them as stated by Katharine MacDonald from 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.”
In their new study, MacDonald and her colleagues analyzed plant samples that were found preserved at the site and date back to when the area was warm enough for the Neanderthals to have lived there. They also studied remnants of charcoal that was left behind by ancient fires. What they discovered was that Neumark-Nord had a lot less trees and much more light as well as opened areas in comparison to other places that were uninhabited.
While there was a lot more charcoal dating back to when the Neanderthals came to the area, it’s very easy to blame them for purposely starting the fires; however, there is the possibility that natural wildfires could have occurred and Neanderthals only arrived there afterwards.
Furthermore, while Neanderthals were known for their stone tools that would have been used to cut wood, “...I don’t know that there’s any direct evidence for actually cutting down a tree,” MacDonald noted.
Another interesting fact is that Neanderthals were known to have moved around a lot and never stayed at one location for very long, but the Neumark-Nord site appeared to have been a permanent residence. Since the area was opened up with several lakes and numerous large animals, perhaps the Neanderthals didn’t see a need to move elsewhere. (A picture of the Neumark-Nord archaeological site can be viewed here.)
The study was published in Science Advances where it can be read in full.