Flexible adaptation to changing environmental conditions — ScienceDaily

Were Neanderthals really as well adapted to a life in the cold as previously assumed, or did they prefer more temperate environmental conditions during the last Ice Age? To answer these questions, it is interesting to examine Neanderthal sites at the northern periphery of their range. After all, this is where the environmental fluctuations were most noticeable, especially due to the repeated advances of ice from Scandinavia. A region particularly suited to such investigations is northern Germany, with its many documented Neanderthal sites.

In a recent study, researchers from MPI-EVA, FAU, Leuphana University Lüneburg, LIAG and other partner institutions investigated the remains of Neanderthals at an ancient lakeside in Lichtenberg in the region. from Wendland (Lower Saxony). Using an integrative research approach, the team combined analytical methods from archaeology, luminescence dating, sedimentology, micromorphology with the study of pollen and phytoliths to explore in detail the relationship between human presence in the north and changing environmental conditions.

A window on the history of the environment

“Archaeological excavations are a window on the history of the environment”, explains Michael Hein, geographer at MPI-EVA. “From the sediments and the pollen grains they contain, we can reconstruct the vegetation and the environmental conditions of the time. For this, we need the most precise dating possible, which – in the case of Europe central – is still lacking for many climates. phases of the last ice age.” The collection of environmental information and the realization of independent dating are of great interest for archeology and paleoenvironmental research.

“At Lichtenberg, we have now managed to date the end of a pronounced warm phase – the so-called Brörup Interstadial – to 90,000 years quite precisely,” adds Hein. “Thus, the cooling of the continent would have coincided with the climate change of the ice of Greenland and the North Atlantic. A direct coupling had so far only been suspected – but not proven – for northern Germany .”

The settlement of the northern zones also during the cold phases

The study also found that Neanderthals occupied a lightly forested shore around 90,000 years ago in a relatively temperate climate. Stone tools found in the old camp bear witness to various activities, such as woodworking and the transformation of plants. Already between 1987 and 1994, the Landesmuseum Hannover excavated a site near Lichtenberg containing bifacial backed knives, called “Keilmesser” – specialized cutting tools. In the excavations, the layers of this ancient campsite are located above the lakeside campsite, which is associated with a temperate climatic period, and dates from around 70,000 years ago, when the first cold maximum of the last ice age has begun. The researchers were thus able to prove that the Neanderthals had indeed inhabited the northern regions even during the cold phases.

Flexible adaptation to environmental conditions

“Changes in stone tools indicate that Neanderthals adapted to changing environmental conditions,” says FAU archaeologist Marcel Weiß. “At Lichtenberg, we were able to show that they repeatedly visited northern central Europe – which developed from a heavily forested environment during the last warm period, to more sparse forests of a cold-moderate climatic period at the start of the last ice age, to the cold tundra of the first cold maximum.”

In this context, the stone tools, in particular the flint knives, show that the lake site of the Neanderthals could have been used for a hunting party for a short stay. Evidence from other sites from the same period indicates that during the cold phases, Neanderthals probably visited their northern habitation grounds primarily during the summer months.

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