Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

The Deep History of Human Landscape Manipulation

This project studies the roles of prehistoric foragers in past ecosystems to establish the character of past “natural” landscapes and enhance the management of current ones.

Wil Roebroeks
Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO)
Royal Academy for Arts and Sciences (KNAW) Royal Academy for Arts and Sciences (KNAW)
Leibniz Collaborative Excellence initiative Leibniz Collaborative Excellence initiative


It is well-known that humans have significantly transformed ecosystems since their adoption of agriculture in many parts of the world, starting 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 like (sub-) recent foragers,  prehistoric hunter-gatherers may already have altered and modified their niche in ways that had major impacts on ecosystems, tens of thousands of years before the emergence of agriculture. Pleistocene vegetation communities were shaped by multiple disturbance factors including megafauna, climate and, to an unknown extent, hunter-gatherers too. Hence, a long-time perspective that includes studying the roles of prehistoric foragers in past ecosystems is of great importance to establish the character of past “natural” landscapes and enhance the management of current ones.   

Pioneering studies

Leiden archaeologists recently addressed this issue in a pioneering study of Neanderthal manipulation of landscapes 125,000 years ago, using a rich dataset collected in large-scale rescue excavations of a series of Neanderthal “camp” sites, extremely well-preserved along the shores of small and shallow lakes at Neumark-Nord, near present-day Halle (Germany). The infill of former lakes, sediments containing dozens of skeletons of elephants, deer, bovids and other animals, were exposed over an area of 26 hectares, made accessible through large-scale brown coal quarrying. 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 established during the long-term multidisciplinary fieldwork 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.  

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 studies of the current interglacial and possibly or the modeling of future changes.

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