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New research indicates Hunter-Gatherer impact on prehistoric European landscapes

The starting point of human-induced landscape changes has been under permanent debate. It is widely accepted that the emergence of agriculture strongly increased human impact on their environments. However, foragers can and do actively transform land cover and ecosystems. Ethnographic observations, summarized in an article published on January 1 revealed three hunter-gather gatherer niche construction activities: modification of vegetation communities via burning; small-scale plant manipulation; landscape modification to impact animal presence and their abundance at specific locations.

Interpreting firing activities

There are variable types of evidence which can possibly reflect these activities for both the Last Interglacial (125,000-115,000 years ago) and the Early–Middle Holocene (11,700-6,000 years ago). Such proxies were evaluated in terms of their spatio-temporal resolution and visibility of signals of hunter-gatherer activities. These proxies turned out to be unable to identify clear differences in specific anthropogenic, climatic and megafaunal impacts between the two periods in Europe.

'Last Interglacial Neanderthals’ impact on their surroundings was occasionally very much comparable to that of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers,' author of the article and PhD candidate Anastasia Nikulina explains. 'However, the absence of unambiguous methods to clearly distinguish between hominin, climatic and megafaunal local impact on vegetation during both periods forces us to be careful in interpreting these firing activities.'

Neanderthal impact

Currently published evidence for Mesolithic manipulation of landscapes is based on the interpretation of data rather similar to those available for the Last Interglacial. If one applies the ‘Mesolithic’ interpretation schemes to the Neanderthal record, all three common niche construction activities can be hypothesised. The new article suggests that as strong a case can be made for a Neanderthal impact on landscapes as for anthropogenic landscape changes during the Mesolithic, even though the Neanderthal evidence comes from only one high-resolution site complex, as recently published.

Nikulina adds: 'The currently available data and amount of research could allow researchers to consider local-scale vegetation burning as a common niche construction activity for both Neanderthals and Mesolithic populations. Other suggestive niche construction activities organised by foragers during both time periods are plant manipulation and impact on animal presence and their abundance.'

Further research should include attempts (e.g. by means of modelling studies) to establish whether hunter-gatherer impact on landscapes played out at a local level only versus at a larger scale during both time periods, while we also need to obtain comparative data on the population sizes of Last Interglacial and Holocene hunter-gatherers, as these are usually inferred to have differed significantly.

Read more

This new article was published on New Year’s Day in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, by PhD candidate Anastasia Nikulina in collaboration with 19 colleagues from the Terranova project. The main conclusion is that Last Interglacial and Early-Middle Holocene hunter-gatherers seem to have practiced similar activities which caused ecosystem transformations. 

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