The First Europeans Environment And Habitat

Herds of elephants, sparse deciduous forests, roaring lions, and grazing hippopotami—the African "emigrants'" new home must at first sight have appeared quite familiar. Southern Europe's climate, at the time of the first human settlement about two million years ago, differed only superficially from that of Africa. Fossil sites in southern Spain, Israel, and Georgia bear witness to the first human arrivals in Europe. The first traces in central and southern Europe appear only a million years later. The famous Homo heidelbergensis jawbone from Mauer (Figure 9a), a child's skull from Atapuerca, Spain (Gran Dolina), and skull fragments from Ceprano in Italy declare the further spread of early humans in Europe. The gap in finds of nearly a million years in Europe's settlement history can perhaps be explained by the worsening climate of that era. The Pleistocene ice age, which began 2.4 million years ago, at first offered the early African immigrants a warm climate. In the course ofthe ice age, though, Europe's environment and habitat changed so greatly that a variant hominid type slowly developed from the original Africans—the Neanderthals. They were the first humans who knew how to defy the cold periods of the ice age. Neanderthals hunted mammoths, the ice-age elephants, ate their meat and also utilized their pelts, leather, tendons, and bones, as can be shown from fossil finds. There are no parallel finds for the early European Homo erectus, the Homo heidelbergensis, from Europe's ice-age animal world.

Up to the current age, the Holocene, which began about 11,000 years ago, humans in Europe were exposed to the ice age's fluctuations in climate and environment. This was a great challenge, as there were as many as twenty cooling and warming cycles (see Figure 8a). The Neanderthals were flexible enough to survive through the cold periods and not weaken in the warm periods; from the modern perspective this appears to be a

THE SETTLEMENT OF THE "NEW WORLD" (a) 15° 10° 0° Degrees Celsius


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Figure 8 (a) The graph above illustrates the great fluctuation in the earth's temperatures in terms of average annual temperature Celsius. (b) The animal life of the ice-age warm period included, among others, wild pigs, water buffalo, wolves, fallow deer, wild horses, brown bears, and aurochs. After a successful hunt, these animals provided food for humans in ice-age Europe. (c) In the cold period the Neanderthals shared their hunting ground, depending on region, above all with elk, wild horses, bison, muskoxen, woolly rhinoceroses, mammoths, and cave bears.

Neanderthals Their Habitat

considerable step forward in human evolution. During the cold periods, ice covered mountains and the poles, and glaciers advanced from Ireland and Scotland over northern Germany as far as the region of modern Berlin (see the Appendix, Figure 23). The areas of Europe that were accessible to humans repeatedly fluctuated in the period after the first wave of settlement, thanks to the changing climate. To be sure, in the cold periods the area covered by ice was greater and many areas were beset with permafrost, but at the same time the sea level receded, since vast amounts of water were converted into ice. Thus, newly habitable land appeared along the coasts (see Figure 23).

But how do we know today what the world of the Neanderthals and their neighbors looked like at that time? One way to reconstruct the climate of the past is through fossil finds of animals. Cave bears, mammoths, musk-oxen, and reindeer spread in the cold periods. By contrast, beaver, hippopotami, and wild boar only dispersed into northern and central Europe in the warm phases. Altogether, it is estimated that at least 44 large mammals existed in Europe at that time, 31 of them herbivores (Figure 8b and e).

Another method to determine the climate of past epochs is to study micro-organisms, such as foraminifera, hard-shelled organisms that live in the sea. These one-celled organisms build their shells of different oxygen isotopes, depending on the temperature of the water. When the polar ice caps become larger (in other words, the climate gets colder), foraminifera have a higher proportion of the lighter oxygen isotope 16O— a process that, after the organism's death, provides valuable evidence for science. The diminutive skeleton sinks, along with many similar species, to the sea bottom, forms beds in the slime, and finally becomes stone. By boring core samples, it has become possible to reconstruct the climate changes of the ice age with barely a gap, with the help of sediment sequencing—at least for the earth's surface that was covered by oceans.

For a local adjustment of this climate data, one also needs continental climate indicators, such as spores and pollen from trees and plants, since for the most part vegetation reacts to climate changes more quickly than do animals and humans. Practitioners ofpalynology, the analysis of pollen and spores, can assign the fossil remains of ancient plants to plant families, genera, or even species that, in part, are still living today. Thus it is possible to reconstruct the habitat of the first Europeans very precisely. Did Homo erectus and Neanderthals live in oak forests or in the shade of conifers? Was it warm or cold at that time? What vegetable and animal foods were available to the first Europeans? It is no wonder that one of the early paleontologists, the Frenchman Edouard Lartet, who worked intensively to develop an archaeological division of human cultural history, named the tools found in western France after the animals discovered in the same finds. Thus he came up with designations like "Cave Bear Period," but also, for example, a "Woolly Mammoth Period." This nomenclature practice would also have been logically possible for the ice age. However, the two first scientists to deal with the sequence of the ice age, the geographers Albrecht Penck and Eduard Brückner, chose river names to label the various periods. In 1909 they already recognized that in the period from 200,000 to 30,000 years bp the ice covering of the Alps had advanced widely and receded again four times. This recognition represented an enormous scientific achievement when one considers that every newly forming glacier wipes away the evidence of the past and literally buries geological information. But not entirely—on river banks, gravel terraces can always be found that were laid down by runoff from the ice sheets. Four tributaries of the Danube—the Günz, Mindel, Riss, and Würm— exhibit just such gravel. Thus it is understandable that Penck and Brückner should have used the names of these rivers when labeling individual segments of the ice age's chronology.

Between the four great cold periods there were warmer spells, the interglacial periods, in which the ice receded and the rivers became wider. In Holland and Germany the cold periods have been given the (river) names Menap, Elster, Saale, and Vistula, while the warm times are called the Cromer Period, Holstein Period, and Eem Period. Even though we now know that the two geographers reckoned the duration of the ice age far too short, this was the chronological framework within which fossil human finds, including Neanderthals, were classified until the introduction of the much more precise measurement of oxygen isotopes in the 1950s.

To be sure, the admittedly rather confused naming of the icy and intermediate ages did not play too great a role in researching the life of the first Europeans. They merely provide a useful chronological scheme, perhaps too zealously memorized and tested in school. Far more exciting are questions about the first Europeans' climate and habitat, their appearance and their migrations. It perhaps simplifies the description of human evolution in Europe if one divides the Quartenary Age, the most recent age of the earth, into four parts. In the period from c. 2.4 million to c. 730,000 years bp, the Lower Pleistocene, the oldest attested settlement of Europe occurred (see Figure 5). While at first they only reached the border regions of Europe, about 600,000 years ago at the latest humans also populated the inland regions of the continent.

The early period of the Neanderthals' forebears begins in the Middle Pleistocene, c. 730,000 to c. 127,000 bp. The main phase of Neanderthal development lies in the Upper Pleistocene, in the period 127,000-27,000 years BP. During this period, the Neanderthals populated central Europe, central Asia, and the Near East. In Europe, the end of the Neanderthal era falls in the period of modern humans, Homo sapiens, who first appeared there about 40,000 years ago. Homo sapiens and the Neanderthals thus inhabited Europe together for several thousand years.

Here we should leave modern humans out of the picture for a while and consider the environment of the first Europeans, especially the Neanderthals. When we speak of the "first Europeans," we mean by that the Neanderthals and all of their ancestors who immigrated from Africa and developed further in the course of more than a million years in ice-age Europe. The unusual climatic development ofthe Quarternary began about 2.8 million years ago. While the climate became progressively dryer in Africa, a first climate depression made itself felt in the warm central Europe of the late Tertiary. Bushland, tundras, and steppes expanded and altered the habitat for animals. With the beginning of the Lower Pleistocene, numerous fluctuations between cold and warm spells set in. Spruce trees came into prominence beside beech, hemlock, and hornbeam in appropriate cold-winter zones of Europe. In the warm periods, alder, wild grape, wingnut, and bog myrtle dominated. During the "Cromer Complex," the first Middle-Pleistocene phase from 730,000 to c. 500,000 years BP (see Figure 5), the forests of western Europe vanished almost entirely. Humans appear in central Europe for the first time in the last warm period of this phase. Finds from Atapuerca, Mauer (Figure 9a), Boxgrove, and Ceprano attest to their arrival.

In the next to last ice age, toward the end of the Middle Pleistocene (c. 250,000 years bp), the development of the Neanderthal finally began. The central European landscape at that time consisted of ice-age tundra; there is evidence of deciduous and coniferous forests only in the warmer Mediterranean regions. Nonetheless, the Neanderthals' landscape seldom stayed the same. In the 200,000 years of their existence, they must have repeatedly adapted to the changing climate of the ice age. The Neanderthals showed themselves to be multi-talented in adapting to climate changes that included temperature fluctuations of up to 10° C in average annual temperature within a decade. There have been several attempts to explain these climate fluctuations. It is certain that periodic fluctuations lay at the heart of the ice ages. While a cold period lasted about 80,000 to 100,000 years, a warm phase (intermediate period) was followed by a renewed cold period after 10,000-15,000 years. The ice ages were not confined to Europe: the Pleistocene Era had global effects on climate. During cold periods, large sections ofthe tropics shrank; desert, grassy steppe, and savannah expanded. During the warm periods, with their increased rainfall, the desert regions became smaller again and the forests spread. Like today, the climate also varied widely in different regions. It was dry in the Levant. Western Asia and eastern Europe formed a single climatic region along with central Europe. France and northern Spain in western Europe were a little warmer, although southern Europe, then as now, had the highest temperatures.

But when and in what sort of climate did the Neanderthals first appear in Europe? A glance at a map of find sites and their chronology shows that the direct ancestors of the Neanderthals developed during the 12,000-year long Eem interglacial period, about 125,000 years ago. Their anatomy was not yet entirely the same as that of the typical late Neanderthal. The early Neanderthals were surrounded by a thick deciduous forest of hazel, oak, elm, linden, yew, and—completely African—even holly. The winter and summer temperatures were similar to ours today, with an annual average temperature of about 12° C. In the second phase of the Eem warm period, bog myrtle spread out. The Neanderthals and their contemporaries would only have been able to traverse the dense virgin forest with difficulty. Scholars thus conjecture that their settlements lay on river meadows and at the edges of the forest.

Besides small mammals and birds, the meat foods available in the warm periods consisted above all of forest elephants, rhinoceri, hippopotami, fallow deer, wild pigs, bears, wolves, and foxes. Since the first spears had already been developed 300,000 years before, it is possible that the first Neanderthals already hunted. Nonetheless, a predominantly vegetarian diet of gathered plants like wild plums, elderberries, acorns, mushrooms, bulbs, roots, fruit, or beechnuts appears much more likely. In contrast to game, plants are specific to a place and can't run away, so for the most part they can be collected without difficulty or any major preparation. If the plant reserves of the settlement area were used up, then it would be necessary to move. This allows us to establish that the early Neanderthals were relatively "site loyal" within a range of a few hours, rather than nomadic. Besides the vegetarian nutritional options available, the first Europeans' menu certainly also included worms, insects, larvae, crabs, mussels, snails, amphibians, or bird eggs. Recent studies of the 29,000-year-old Neanderthal fossils from Vindija Cave in Croatia have established, though, that the classic Neanderthals who lived there nourished themselves almost exclusively with game. The meat consumption (known thanks to the collagen levels that lead to a high protein mass in bones) was determined to be at a record level. As far as this particular Neanderthal population goes, it is possible to say with certainty that their members included proficient hunters who were in a position to satisfy their craving for meat.

In view of the scattered nature of the finds, though, one must be careful about overgeneralization. We simply cannot answer with certainty the question of whether Neanderthals preferred vegetarian food or game. The situation is different with our knowledge of the Pleistocene climate fluctuations: we know that c. 115,000 years ago the temperatures changed again. It became colder, and warm-period food sources like fruits, berries, seeds, and mushrooms became scarcer for the Neanderthals. Spruce and fir spread, and the colder it became, the more pine trees became established in the forests. With the onset of the so-called Vistula cold period, the forest vanished; bushy tundra and simple grassy tundra covered the land. The average temperature in July was under 10° C. About 20,000 years ago Europe reached its coldest point, with an average January temperature of -27°. For the animals of the cold period—cave lion, cave bear, hyena, mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, reindeer, saiga antelope, musk-ox, horse, and bison—the climate change was especially linked to long migrations. The warm-period forest had in the past offered a richer food supply than the barren landscape of the cold-period steppe and tundra. Humans had to migrate with the animals, if they wanted to survive. When local resources were used up, the Neanderthals, who appear to have lived in groups of up to fifteen individuals, moved on. It has been established from tool finds that the stone from which the tools were made had been brought to individual settlement locations from up to 80 kilometers away—an enormous effort, which attests to forward-looking plans, trade, and not least flexibility among those who upheld the culture. These finds also help elucidate the Neanderthals' migration movements and their spread over Europe. Changes in locale were not motivated by any modern longing for change, but rather by the necessity of migrating along with the food supply. If each generation moved only ten kilometers further, that would have added up to 500 kilometers after 1000 years or 50 generations. By modern standards, this is an extremely slow process, but measured by the development periods of geological ages it is a veritable sprint. Even though that is only a hypothetical example, it still demonstrates that the migrations of the first Europeans might not have been migrations from curiosity or longing for adventure, but much more a moving along with the resources, to exploit a new habitat because the old had become too narrow, too empty, too dry, or too wet.

Finally, the motivation and course of the first "emigration" from Africa should also be understood in the same way. Two million years ago, the habitats, the fauna, and the flora in Africa were not very different from those of the Levant. Rising population numbers raised the pressure to find new sources of food. The humans had to find a solution and moved—more or less intentionally—to where there were plants and animals. As an alternative thesis, the zoologist Josef Reichholf has proposed that humans left Africa to evade the spread of diseases like the deadly malaria or sleeping sickness. In the final analysis, we can only guess why an early

Homo erectus or a later Homo rudolfensis set out for the new "old world," because no sources from this preliterate age transmit information about concrete, individual motives.

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