A harsh, inhospitable cold desert? My ass. In reality, Europe was a lush paradise full of giant animals during the last cold snap, researchers say.
The Ice Age must have been terribly uncomfortable, gloomy, barren and cold – that’s how we imagine it today. But before 30.000 years ago, Europe was not a block of ice. In fact, the landscape was more like the African savannah. The "Ice Age Safari" museum show in Koblenz takes visitors on a tour of Europe at the time when mammoths, bison, woolly rhinoceroses, lions, wolves, bears and giant deer roamed the landscape. The Ice Age has left its mark on. The passionate collector Klaus Reis has gathered them together: minerals, bones and antlers. His findings form the basis for the "Ice Age Safari". The exhibit also shows that humans of the time were more like us than we think.
Lena, as Wilfried Rosendahl affectionately calls the young woman. He recently meets them daily at his workplace. The paleontologist with the quick eyes and flying hair is director of the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museums in Mannheim, Germany.
Lena is not much shorter than him, slim, an attractive type. The face regular, open brown hair, the look self-confident.
Rosendahl touches Lena’s fingertips. Her skin is soft, the tissue under her slightly dirty nails – from making fire? – gives way elastically. She would certainly have a hearty handshake. Would he ever meet her in the flesh.
Her model, however, already lived 30,000 years ago, during the last ice age. Lena also looks alive, but she was molded out of silicone by Berlin figure maker Lina Buscher, modeled with real eyelashes and hair, and outfitted with Indian-looking leather clothes.
Leaning casually on a wooden spear, Lena represents the species along with a male figure with a beaded beard Homo sapiens, modern man, in the spectacular museum show "Ice Age Safari," which has just opened in Koblenz.
Lena’s sight makes it clear: there is no difference between the people who inhabited our continent during the Ice Age 30,000 years ago and today’s Europeans. Lena’s mammoth-hunting contemporaries were no different in appearance from the people who today crawl along the freeways in the morning commuter traffic jam. A growing number of paleoanthropologists are certain that the blueprint of the psyche of those early Europeans was no different from our own. "A child from the ice age would develop normally if placed in our world," says Tubingen researcher Herve Bocherens.
This exhibition aims to show how close we still are to life in the Ice Age. Instead, numerous complete skeletons and never-before-seen reconstructions of Ice Age wildlife have been arranged in a landscape setting. Not only Lena, but also mammoths, European bison, woolly rhinoceroses and giant deer were recreated in an incredibly realistic way for the exhibition.
"Ice Age Safari" is what the Reiss-Engelhorn Museums have called the show. They want to show that 30,000 years ago Europe actually had more in common with the African savannah than with Greenland. Fueled by popular media and animated movies ("Ice Age"), most people imagine the Ice Age to have been a frigid epoch. A gloomy time, in which beside the Homo sapiens the Neanderthal still roamed the continent, always close to death by freezing, starving, being beaten to death. But the ice age was neither exclusively icy nor barren.
"Ice age was different," says Rosendahl.
Was it possibly even the European Garden of Eden, the landscape whose image still slumbers in our collective subconscious??
First of all, geologists say for clarification, what we laymen call an ice age is only the last cold period of the last ice age so far, the Cenozoic. That began 30 million years ago and continues to this day. During this time several cold and warm periods alternated. Today we have been living in such a warm period for about 10 000 years, but it is still part of an ice age.
The cold period before (Wurm or Weichsee ice age) lasted almost 100,000 years. They have most in mind when they speak of "the ice age. This is the period, through which the Koblenz exhibition leads us – and this safari forces us to correct our picture.
For the presentation, the exhibition organizers processed completely new, often revolutionary results from paleontologists, plant researchers, geneticists, ecologists and dating experts. The scientists provide a completely new picture of ice age life on our continent.
Until just 10,000 years ago, it was an ecosystem with a veritable tropical abundance of life. Our ancestors encountered enormous animals. In many places the climate was more pleasant than often thought, in the short summers the temperature could sometimes rise above 20 degrees. There were many blue skies and sunshine. It was not particularly icy during the warm season – not even in the immediate vicinity of the glaciers. Although these had advanced from Scandinavia to what is now northern Germany, where they left a lasting mark on the landscape. And although in the south the snow and ice masses of the Alps pushed down to the lowlands. Today, large lakes like Lake Chiemsee or Lake Constance fill the basins carved by these ice tongues.
The spectacular witnesses of glacial forces are still unmistakable today. However, they distract attention from the surprising traces that only specialists can make out. They know today: In the last ice age, a savannah of waving grasses covered the European earth in early summer. As far as the eye could see, there was a sea of flowers, interspersed with scrubland and isolated clumps of trees.
This scenery is the opposite of the long-held idea that a barren tundra covered the land with lichens and cripple bushes. Or the dark coniferous forest of the taiga. "The image of a prehistoric densely forested Europe is outdated," says paleontologist Mietje Germonpre of the Brussels Natural History Museum, summarizing the latest state of knowledge. Researchers need to rethink: where we live today was once a kind of Serengeti.
The landscape was not barren, but lush, bursting with life. Unlike tundra or taiga, a grass savanna is highly fertile. According to researchers such as Bocherens and Germonpre, the animals inside were often considerably larger than their present-day relatives. Herds of mammoths, bison and horses, woolly rhinoceroses, saiga antelopes and giant deer grazed in the savannah. There were leopards, wolves, hyenas, lions, brown and cave bears, and in the last warm period 120,000 years ago (Eemian warm period) even hippopotami, as numerous fossil finds prove.
A key position in this ice-age Serengeti was occupied by the Rhine valley. Because southern air was able to flow unhindered past the Alps through the Burgundy Gate and the climate was milder here than in the surrounding area even then, the migration routes of the large herds crossed each other. Just 20,000 years ago, the Upper Rhine Plain was something like a European Etosha pan – hardly less rich in species than Namibia’s legendary salt plain, which attracts thousands of wildlife tourists every year.
Klaus Reis dug up the memory of it with his own hands. The 81-year-old senior boss of a Riesling sparkling wine cellar in Deidesheim spent every free hour of his life on safari in the Upper Rhine region. It was a stalk into the past.
Rice has been an avid collector since his early childhood days. At first, like many others, he dutifully searched for minerals in the German provinces in the late 1940s. Until, by chance, he stumbled upon something that was to become his life’s purpose. "One day, at low water in the Rhine bed, I stumbled across a skull," he recalls. Fascinated, the boy dug deeper and deeper and finally had uncovered the skull bone of a giant deer – complete with antler blades.
The boy’s hobby became a passion for the rest of his life. Over the years, Rice collected thousands of skulls and other remains of mammoths, rhinoceroses, buffaloes and other animals in the Rhine gravel, not only from the last Ice Age, but from the entire Quaternary period. This is what geologists call the epoch of the last 2.6 million years, the most recent period of the earth’s history, which extends to the present day.
Klaus Reis’ bone finds form an important scientific basis for the "Ice Age Safari" project. Much of what he has collected cannot be shown at all, so large is the quantity of bones that the collector has uncovered in the Serengeti on the Upper Rhine. Until the eighties, there was no legal regulation for fossil finds in Rhineland-Palatinate. Collectors could keep what they had dug up. Rice had a free hand. He often searched in the spoil heaps that were created when the shipping channel was dredged along the riverbank. Or in gravel pits.
"I don’t know why I, of all people, was so lucky," is how Reis describes his emotional state during numerous rapturous days, such as that Maundy Thursday in 1977 when, after a thundershower, something shimmered in the dripping fault line of a sand pit. "At five in the evening, another pair of antlers from a giant deer lay next to me in the nettles," Reis recalls. "Whether I had tears in en eyes, I do not remember, but I asked myself: My God, why then always me?"
This cornucopia of finds simply reflects the opulent living conditions of the Ice Age. Our ancestors lived in a world of abundance. Food was not scarce, although it varied greatly seasonally. Eggs were only available from spring to early summer, fruits only from summer to autumn. Meat, however, was never scarce. People hardly suffered from lack, at most at the end of long winters.
The ice-age mammoth steppe covered almost the entire northern hemisphere. Siberia and Alaska were not separated by the Bering Strait because the sea level was 150 meters lower than today due to the water trapped in the polar caps. What is now Europe, Asia and large parts of North America then formed a gigantic ecosystem that stretched once around the globe as a summer steppe.
Gallery: survival in the coldest places on earth
A persistent hiker could have walked dry-footed through this incredibly rich landscape from the beach of what is now the Bay of Biscay eastward through what is now Russia to the Americas. "This is the world in which modern humans have evolved," says Bocherens. The Homo sapiens remained a savanna dweller even after leaving Africa.
Thus it was not only the vastness of East Africa, the "cradle of mankind," that fed our collective subconscious with memories of living together with large herds. In Europe it was no different. Nor elsewhere on Earth. "On all continents, ecosystems were dominated by giant herbivores," says Bocherens. And everywhere, their domination produced a wondrous diversity.
In the Americas, for example, south of the Canadian Ice Sheet, and thus separate from the Eurasian mammoth steppe, a world had formed that was traversed by heat-loving Columbian mammoths, by giant sloths and primitive elephant-like mastodons. In southern Asia and in the so-called Fertile Crescent of today’s Middle East, elephants and aurochs dominated the plains.
A high phase of the planet: the global savannah paradise of the great grazers, which neither wolf nor cave lion could seriously tackle. But the power of the giant bodies extended even further than just being able to defend themselves against predators: The grazing habits of the great vegetarians altered nutrient cycles in ways that also affected the weather and kept it mild. The giant herds created their own climate.
Such a statement, Bocherens knows, initially meets with skepticism from some colleagues. "Until now, biologists believed that a fertile habitat with lush vegetation was the prerequisite for being able to feed many herbivores; only then did predators move there," explains Bocherens.
Vegetation, animals and climate put in separate boxes. What emerged was, on the one hand, the image of a tropical-looking abundance of animal species – and, on the other, that of the Ice Age landscape as barren icy wasteland, arid tundra or gloomy coniferous forest, which has dominated popular imagination right down to episodes of the "Ice Age" movies. Lots of frost, few soil bacteria, hardly any nutrient turnover – what was once eaten would not have become fertilizer again for a long time under these conditions.
The consequences for the ecosystem seemed to be evident in the barren lichen grasslands of today’s polar regions. "But what we hadn’t considered," says Bocherens, "was the role of the animals themselves."Or rather their stomachs. Their microflora replaced the soil bacteria and recycled substances, which were then available again in a flash as fertilizer for new plant growth.
"During the ice age, the bacterial flora was moved from the soil, as it were, to the ubiquitous stomachs of mammoths, deer, horses and bison," explains Bocherens. Thus the large mammals had become landscape designers. Even at the edge of the glaciers, which had advanced far from the polar regions, their dung caused vegetation to sprout that resembled today’s Central European summer meadows with countless flowers, insects and small animals. Though it seems paradoxical, herds of herbivores produced the plants they needed to reproduce en masse.
"We have to think of the Ice Age landscape as an ecosystem controlled by the animals themselves," Bocherens says.
Current evidence for this thesis is provided by the "Pleistocene Park" in Russian Siberia. There, researchers have been keeping large mammals for two decades in an area several square kilometers in size. Although they are not prehistoric mammoths and woolly rhinos, but horses, European bison and yaks, their presence has the same effect as it once did: their stomachs harbor an eager bacterial flora that re-mineralizes the eaten greens in a flash into nutrients that the animals’ dung distributes on the permafrost soil. Another effect is that the large mammals nibble the saplings of young trees and thus prevent the development of large coniferous forests.
The ecological effect is spectacular: within a few years, the tundra within the park was transformed into a fertile steppe. Insects and songbirds have moved in. Even bees, under these circumstances, now venture far northward beyond the polar circle. With these findings, it can finally be explained why archaeologists excavated ice-age mammoth bones at a latitude of 72 degrees north. The climatic shaping of the herbivores made the land so fertile that mammal herds could thrive in those regions.
But this means that other inhospitable landscapes in the northern hemisphere do not necessarily have to look the way we know them. "Tundra and taiga are what form when the great grazers disappear," Bocherens notes. They are a kind of ecological dwindling. "If the large mammals stay away, a tipping point is passed," is how the biologist explains it. Once the ecological seesaw has tilted to one side, cycles of matter change, precipitation patterns change, species die out en masse and rapidly – and the landscape becomes barren.
This insight applies not only to the cold ages of prehistoric Europe, but also to later warm ages. It also calls into question the ideal of the dense beech forest as the natural ecological state of our continent, a vision so beloved by many environmentalists. As early as 2,000 years ago, Roman historians reported Caesar’s campaigns through the endless forests of Germania, and this was probably true at the time and in some regions. But by and large, there were probably fewer large forests on the continent most of the time than is widely believed. Mammoths, horses and bison provided fertile, open landscapes.
Gallery: The wondrous life under the Arctic sea ice
No history book and certainly no ecological textbook records that our European past took place in a landscape full of animals as far as the eye could see. Perhaps, however, the echoes of this abundance have been reflected in the myths of paradise that exist in many advanced civilizations. Adam and Eve would then have been Ice Age people – contemporaries of Lena, the wiry huntress.
The idea of a deserted wilderness may have taken root in our minds because large mammal herds have no longer grazed the steppes in Europe, Asia and the Arab world since ancient times. We have forgotten what the landscape of our early times looked like.
Fortunately, biologists do not have to rely solely on speculation to support their hypotheses, which are being confirmed by increasingly sensitive measurement techniques. Scientists can now find out what animals and people who died many tens of thousands of years ago fed on. This is because different types of carbon and nitrogen are deposited in the bones depending on the type of meal – and these isotopes are preserved in the fossil remains.
For example, it can be shown that mammoths ate grasses, while reindeer preferred lichens and mosses. Recently it has been confirmed that the fearsome cave bear was in fact a pure vegetarian. And that early humans preferred to feed on mammoths. There were plenty of them, as well as other big game.
Thus, the original habitat of our species is not what we call "wilderness" today, a silent landscape where outnumbered animals shyly huddle in the bushes. When modern man spread in Europe, he rather existed in the middle of an abundance of other life forms. These included one that also hunted its prey in groups, but just like the Homo sapiens continued to eat vegetable food: the Neanderthal man. The ice age savannah paradise fed not one, but two species of humans.
For many millennia, modern humans lived side by side with Homo neanderthalis in Ice Age Europe Homo neanderthalensis. When the Homo sapiens Arriving as a migrant from Africa more than 40,000 years ago, he already encountered Neanderthal man there. The older relative was not born in Africa, but was already in Europe some ten thousand years earlier from the Homo heidelbergensis emerged. Like us, the Neanderthals knew fire, buried their dead, made tools and jewelry, and communicated with each other using a kind of language.A good 30000 years before our time the traces of the Neanderthal man disappeared. Until recently, many paleoanthropologists held the view that our ancestors had outcompeted their older cousins in the battle for
Food eradicated. But there is no evidence that there was a war between the two species of man. Exactly what the relationship was between them is a field of hot speculation. Did they perceive themselves as different at all? Or just as different clans with perhaps strange customs? Only one thing has recently become certain: the two human lineages were sexually attracted to each other. Because today it is proven that Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis have reproduced with each other.
We also owe such findings to the rapid progress of analytical technology. Evolutionary geneticist Michael Hofreiter of the University of Potsdam is one of those who is developing and using the new methods. At the beginning of his career, he had still tried to decode the few gene sequences that could be obtained from bones "by hand". Today, billions of pieces of primitive genetic material can be automatically examined and "read".
That is why we have recently learned that we owe part of our genetic makeup directly to Neanderthal man. Up to three percent of our DNA comes from the other human species. Their genes control parts of our immune system, create resistance to some allergens, and influence our digestion.
In Romania in 2015, the bones of a modern human, which are about 40,000 years old, proved that he possessed almost ten percent Neanderthal genes. He was the descendant of a fertile union with a partner of the other species not long ago. Perhaps his great-great-great-grandfather had fathered a child with a Neanderthal woman.
Thus it is true today: Modern man may have displaced the Neanderthal – but he also assimilated him in the process. Genetically seen. Instead of triumphing over the clans of the supposedly inferior food competitor, we married into his family – and not just once.
"There was not a one-time Neanderthal interbreeding, but multiple fusion events," is Hofreiter’s scientific formulation. In simpler terms, the glacial Homo sapiens, our actual ancestor, ensured with each cross-species relationship that his children became a bit of a Neanderthal themselves. And thus it is also us.
For Hofreiter, therefore, the common image of the human family tree with its neatly separated lineages is wrong. "In truth, we need to understand our past more as a fertile mishmash," says the paleogeneticist. The human lineage, he says, is more like the branching delta of an estuary, from which rivulets split off, rejoin, and flow back into the main stream, from which other branches then separate off.
While researchers hope to be able to explain the fate of the Neanderthal in this way, the disappearance of the spectacular large animal species, the megafauna, poses even more of a mystery to them. For decades, ecologists agreed that mammoth, rhinoceros, lion and hyena became extinct as temperatures rose. When the savanna became a forest, the established species were unable to cope with competition from heat-adapted newcomers.
Archaeological findings from the last decade, however, show more and more clearly: it was man himself who hunted the large animals to extinction. Historically, this can even be proven for the megafauna of North America. Only after the immigration of the Homo sapiens Across the Bering Strait land bridge 10,000 years ago, such wondrous forms as elephant-like mastodons and the giant sloth disappeared from the continent.
However, humans do not have to bear the blame for their extinction alone. Meanwhile, many scientists believe a lethal combination is the cause of the ecological catastrophe in which the ice-age large mammals perished. Hunting pressure from humans exacerbated the effects of concurrent global warming, which began after the maximum cold snap about 20,000 years ago. What happened back then is now becoming a burning issue for the future of our ecosystems in view of this time’s man-made global warming.
Natural populations, says Bocherens, will always fluctuate strongly. But as long as there were remnants of a species living somewhere, it could recover even from severe crises and, for example, migrate to climatically more favorable zones. However, as soon as the migration and escape routes were blocked by humans, it became critical.
"Over thousands of years, the European mammoth population was replenished again and again by animals from Siberia," the biologist explains. The losses due to human hunters in more densely populated ice-age Europe were thus compensated for. Only when the Siberian population was also decimated, the woolly trunk giant disappeared from the Old World.
According to the report, the killer factor for species – yesterday as today – is the combination of habitat change and active threats from humans. Natural change alone could cushion species, given enough space and time.
This sheds new light on what we’re missing in the current climate change of our own making: so far, efforts have focused on stopping the heating up. Fatally, we pay less attention to the ever more rapidly dwindling habitats. For most species worldwide, however, the biggest problem today, as it once was during the Ice Age, is not the changing climate but the destruction of their habitat. They have nowhere else to go.
"The African mountain gorillas, for example, are more or less stuck on a few hilltops," Hofreiter says. "The space in between is claimed by humans." That means primates can’t move further up – but they can’t migrate either. Without humans reshaping and blocking the surrounding lowlands, the gorillas would have more chances to move to more life-friendly regions.
The example of mammoths on icy Wrangel Island in the Siberian Arctic Ocean proves how resilient species can be when humans leave them alone. The animals still lived there until about 2000 BC. Chr. held – until hunters also penetrated this remote island (see "Hunters of the White Gold," NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC April 2013). If the hypothesis of the "mammoth steppe" is correct, according to which the large mammals largely shaped their own habitat, the island only became the wattle tundra we know today after the demise of the grass-eating giants. And still an above-average number of species of flowering plants grow on it.
Gallery: The wild winter wonderland of the Arctic from above
Bocheren believes too little attention is still paid to how closely biology and climate are linked. Both factors together could change habitats more rapidly than previously thought possible. He observes such tipping today in tropical regions, where large mammals such as tapirs and forest elephants are becoming extinct. "We’re already seeing certain trees disappear there because their seeds can only be eaten and spread by large animals," says the biologist.
Of all things, humans could take on an ecological substitute function here. For it is precisely plants with large kernels – avocado or cocoa – that are cultivated primarily by him. It seems that when the giants are gone, farmers take over the role of elephants and rhinos.
This observation from the tropics may also provide the key to one of the most puzzling events in Ice Age history: the Neolithic Revolution, the transition from nomadic culture to sedentary agriculture at the end of the last cold period. This upheaval began in the Fertile Crescent of today’s Iraq and Syria, and not in Central Europe. Regardless, humans reinvented animal husbandry and the cultivation of grass as a grain several times, whether in China or South America. Everywhere a large mammal steppe had existed there before for decades thousands of years.
Bocherens recognizes a pattern in this. "Humans started farming when the big herbivores were gone," he concludes. Before that, mammoths and rhinoceroses would have destroyed any arable land. After their disappearance, in turn, the landscape became impoverished. Humans had to invent a substitute for their ecological function in order not to become extinct themselves. With agriculture took over Homo sapiens the role of the former grazers and providers of nutrients for the soil – "by the sweat of his brow," as the biblical narrative puts it. Now the descendants of Adam and Eve mowed the grass and kept the cattle that fertilized the pastures.
Not all colleagues share Bocherens’ view. For many, the shift to agriculture remains puzzling – especially since the transition from hunting meat-eaters to arable grain-eaters arguably temporarily worsened the food situation for humans. Bocherens, however, suspects that man instinctively imitated the recipe of natural fertility with agriculture: the increase of productivity by large grazers.
He estimates that today the weight of all people, including the cattle, horses, goats and sheep they keep, is equal to that of the former herds of mammoths, reindeer, bison and wild horses. "The biomass of early megaherbivores was replaced by the biomass of livestock," says paleoscientist.
From this perspective, the Ice Age was not only different than we previously thought. It did not even pass. Not even in our soul. Dozens of psychological studies have repeatedly shown that people around the world consider a very specific type of landscape to be particularly beautiful: that vast, animal-rich savannah that we see through the eyes of a Neanderthal grandson. Those which our fictional Ice Age ancestor Lena also saw and found just as beautiful because it was her homeland. The one that fascinates Rosendahl, the museum director, so much that he invites visitors to take a journey in it.
It is the landscape that awoke in the mind of Klaus Reis when, stunned with happiness, he repeatedly discovered new Ice Age remains of a rhinoceros, an antelope or a mammoth in the Rhine Valley.