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A Deep History of Human Landscape Manipulation

This study aims to provide a long time perspective of human landscape manipulation. Studying the roles of prehistoric foragers in past ecosystems is of great importance to establish the character of past 'natural' landscapes and to enhance the management of current ones.

It is well-known that humans have significantly transformed ecosystems since their adoption of agriculture in many parts of the world. By doing so, humans started a trajectory that ultimately made us a 'hyper'-keystone species altering nearly all food webs on the planet.

Less attention has been devoted to archaeological indications that prehistoric hunter-gatherers may already have altered and modified their niche in ways that had major impacts on ecosystems. They did so tens of thousands of years before the emergence of agriculture. Pleistocene vegetation communities were not only shaped by disturbance factors such as megafauna and climate but also to an unknown extent,  by hunter-gatherers.

Well-preserved Neanderthal sites

Leiden archaeologists address this issue in a pioneering study of Neanderthal manipulation of landscapes 125,000 years ago. They use a rich dataset collected in large-scale rescue excavations of a series of Neanderthal camp sites.

These sites are extremely well-preserved along the shores of lakes near present-day Halle (Germany). Here, an area of 26 hectares was exposed through large-scale brown coal quarrying. A great oppurtunity to study the infill of former lakes: sediments containing dozens of skeletons of elephants, deer, bovids and other animals.

High-tech methods to look into the Last Interglacial

The fieldwork and subsequent laboratory studies, still ongoing, yielded rich data concerning the character of Neanderthal hunting behaviour and a unique diversity of information about the local environment during the Last Interglacial. We will use this high-resolution palaeoecological and archaeological dataset to study human impact on the vegetation, the guild of larger carnivores and the herbivore community,  through a very well-documented period of ~11.000 years of interglacial time.

For this purpose, we combine stable isotope, palaeogenetic, zooarchaeological and archaeological data as well as fire proxies and computer simulations of prey and predator population dynamics. 

Understanding the past to look at the future

This study will also provide important terrestrial, local information which can complement long palaeoenvironmental sequences, e.g. from deep sea cores, and will improve climate reconstruction. Enhanced understanding of last interglacial conditions is relevant for the current interglacial and possibly modelling future changes.


The project is a cooperation between the MONREPOS Research Centre at Neuwied/Mainz and Leiden’s Faculty of Archaeology, and is funded by the Leibniz Collaborative Excellence initiative (Germany) and the EU TerraNova programme.

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