Neanderthals of the north

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 worthwhile to examine Neanderthal sites on the northern periphery of their range. After all, it was there that environmental fluctuations were most noticeable, especially as a result of repeated ice advances from Scandinavia. A region particularly suitable for such investigations is northern Germany, with its numerous documented Neanderthal sites.

- Advertisement -

In a recent study, researchers from MPI-EVA, FAU, Leuphana University Lüneburg, LIAG and other partner institutions have now investigated the remains of Neanderthals at a former lakeshore in Lichtenberg in the Wendland region (Lower Saxony). Using an integrative research approach, the team has 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 into environmental history

”Archaeological excavations are a window into environmental history”, says Michael Hein, a geographer at MPI-EVA. “Based on sediments and pollen grains they contain, we can reconstruct the vegetation and environmental conditions of the time. For this, the most accurate dating possible is required, which – in the case of Central Europe – is still lacking for many climatic phases of the last Ice Age.” Collecting environmental information and performing independent dating is of great interest to archaeology and paleoenvironmental research alike.

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

- Advertisement -

Settlement of northern areas also during cold phases

The study also found that Neanderthals occupied a lightly wooded lakeshore about 90,000 years ago in a relatively temperate climate. Stone tools found at the former campsite attest to a variety of activities, such as woodworking and plant processing.

Already between 1987 and 1994, the Landesmuseum Hannover excavated a site close to Lichtenberg containing bifacial backed knives, so-called “Keilmesser” – specialized cutting tools. In the excavations, the layers of this former campsite are located above the lakeshore campsite, which is associated with a temperate climate period, and date to a time about 70,000 years ago, when the last Ice Age’s first cold maximum began. The researchers were thus able to prove that Neanderthals had indeed inhabited the northern regions even during cold phases.

Flexible adaptation to environmental conditions

”Changes in stone tools indicate that Neanderthals adapted in line with changing environmental conditions”, says Marcel Weiß, an archaeologist at FAU. “In 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 sparser forests of a cold-moderate climate period at the beginning of the last Ice Age, to the cold tundra of the first cold maximum.”

In this context, the stone tools, especially knives made of flint, show that the Neanderthals’ lakeshore site may have served a hunting party for a short stay. Evidence from other sites from the same time period indicates that during cold phases Neanderthals likely visited their northern dwelling grounds mainly during the summer months.


Header Image Credit : Lake shore (black organic layer) from 90,000 years ago superimposed by cold climatic sediments – Image Credit : M. Weiss / M. Hein

- Advertisement -
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.

Mobile Application


Related Articles

Archaeologists search crash site of WWII B-17 for lost pilot

Archaeologists from Cotswold Archaeology are excavating the crash site of a WWII B-17 Flying Fortress in an English woodland.

Roman Era tomb found guarded by carved bull heads

Archaeologists excavating at the ancient Tharsa necropolis have uncovered a Roman Era tomb guarded by two carved bull heads.

Revolutionary war barracks discovered at Colonial Williamsburg

Archaeologists excavating at Colonial Williamsburg have discovered a barracks for soldiers of the Continental Army during the American War of Independence.

Pleistocene hunter-gatherers settled in Cyprus thousands of years earlier than previously thought

Archaeologists have found that Pleistocene hunter-gatherers settled in Cyprus thousands of years earlier than previously thought.

Groundbreaking study reveals new insights into chosen locations of pyramids’ sites

A groundbreaking study, published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment, has revealed why the largest concentration of pyramids in Egypt were built along a narrow desert strip.

Soldiers’ graffiti depicting hangings found on door at Dover Castle

Conservation of a Georgian door at Dover Castle has revealed etchings depicting hangings and graffiti from time of French Revolution.

Archaeologists find Roman villa with ornate indoor plunge pool

Archaeologists from the National Institute of Cultural Heritage have uncovered a Roman villa with an indoor plunge pool during excavations at the port city of Durrës, Albania.

Archaeologists excavate medieval timber hall

Archaeologists from the University of York have returned to Skipsea in East Yorkshire, England, to excavate the remains of a medieval timber hall.