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Brandenburg’s Oldest Archaeological Site

130,000-year-old Neanderthal tools discovered at Jänschwalde surface mining site

Oct 30, 2013

Erhaltungszustand der 130.000 Jahre alten Knochen: Unterkiefer eines Pferdes.
Conservation status of the 130,000 year old bones: The lower jaw of a horse is shown here. Image Credit: Brandenburgisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege und Archäologisches Museum.
Arbeiten am Grabungsplatz an einer Tagebauböschung im Tagebau Jänschwalde.
Work on the excavation site at the Jänschwalde surface mining complex near the city of Cottbus, Germany. Image Credit: Brandenburgisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege und Archäologisches Museum

An ice-age archaeological site at the Jänschwalde surface mining complex, near the city of Cottbus, has yielded the oldest evidence of human life in the state of Brandenburg. The excavations were organized by the Brandenburg State Office of Historical Preservation and the State Archaeological Museum, in cooperation with Freie Universität Berlin and the energy company Vattenfall. In strata of soil about 20 meters deep, geologically dated to the end of the second-to-last ice age – during the Wolstonian Stage – archaeologists from the Brandenburg State Office of Historical Preservation and paleontologists from Freie Universität found bones from various animals, including wolf, horse, moose, and bison. As a result, they were initially able to form an impression of the environment in which prehistoric humans lived.

The researchers also discovered flint tools, such as a scraper that Neanderthals probably used to scrape any remaining flesh from the skins of animals they had caught. Also found was a Levallois core, a stone used to make tools and weapons out of flint. Before this, the oldest archaeological findings from Brandenburg were about 40,000 years old. The new discoveries prove that Neanderthals lived in Brandenburg as much as 130,000 years ago.

Says minister of culture Dr. Sabine Kunst, “This discovery will change how Brandenburg’s history is written. The artifacts are the oldest evidence of human existence not just in the Lower Lusatia region, but anywhere in Brandenburg. Before this, finds of this nature stretched back just 40,000 years, but in the future, the history of the settlement of Brandenburg will start 130,000 years ago. The find itself, and salvaging the artifacts, were made possible through close cooperation between the State Office of Historical Preservation, Freie Universität, and Vattenfall, and among scholars, researchers, and miners working right here at the site. Without the multifaceted technical support that was offered, the tremendous interest in the concerns involved in archaeological preservation, and, of course, the additional financing from Vattenfall, these results would hardly even have been conceivable. My heartfelt thanks go out to everyone who was a part of this historic find.”

The environment around the find site was reconstructed through geological and paleontological studies. According to the researchers’ findings, 130,000 years ago the site was located in a flat lowland area dotted with shallow bodies of water, with mixed forest and tundra vegetation consisting of sea buckthorn, willow, and birch along with various herbs, grasses, and mosses. Paleontologist Dr. Annette Kossler of Freie Universität Berlin explains that the numerous fossils of flora and fauna found there show that in terms of the kinds of foods available and the temperatures, living conditions in the area were comparable to those in today’s boreal climate zones, such as northern Scandinavia. “That means Neanderthals could move into what is now Lower Lusatia during the summer months, at least,” she adds.

The fact that the archaeological site is still preserved was due to a series of geological processes: When the atmosphere began to warm at the end of the Wolstonian Stage, about 130,000 years ago, huge stores of ice that had remained under the soil thawed, gradually creating a major depression on the surface of the land. The low-lying area filled with water to form a large lake, which continued to exist throughout the period following the Wolstonian Stage, known as the Eemian interglacial period. In lake deposits as much as nine meters deep, the researchers found countless animal bones, including vertebrae and other skeleton elements, most of them from fish and mammals, along with large plant fossils, such as wood, leaves, and cones, all evidence proving the existence of the lake. During the subsequent Weichsel glaciation, which took place from 115,000 to 11,700 years before the present day, the area experienced deep-seated erosion, and all but the deepest areas of the former lake basin and the underlying stratum where the archaeological findings were made were washed or carried away. In the millennia that followed, these strata were covered again by more recent deposits, so they remained preserved up to the present day.

Dr. Hartmuth Zeiss, board chairman of Vattenfall’s mining division, explained that the southeastern areas of Lower Lusatia have an especially long tradition of scientific research on findings from the Eemian interglacial period. “As far back as in 1885, the first vertebrate bones were found at the edge of the Jänschwalde mining complex. The first mammoth skeleton discovered in Germany was also found here, in 1903. Vattenfall has been continuing this tradition of early archaeology in the Jänschwalde area for some years now.” The energy company has contributed nearly eight million euros in recent years to support the work being done by the state archaeologists in the area around the active mining site. “After all, researchers rarely get the chance to explore such large contiguous areas otherwise. What is new about these excavations is that the researchers can do their work right at an active mining embankment. We lay the technical groundwork for this, with an eye to safety and ensuring that business operations can proceed smoothly,” Zeiss says.

The state archaeologist for Brandenburg, Dr. Franz Schopper, was evidently deeply impressed by the dimensions of the findings at the Jänschwalde site: “The flint weapons found during earlier excavations at the Jänschwalde mining site, from reindeer hunters at the end of the last ice age, are already unimaginably old – 13,000 years. The first traces of interaction between Neanderthals and their environment in the second-to-last ice age that have now been discovered are ten times as old! This is a tremendously important find, and we are very happy that further research is being made possible,” he says. The Brandenburg State Office of Historical Preservation performs 30 to 40 larger-scale excavations each year in the region of Lower Lusatia where lignite, or brown coal, is mined. The office is also involved in test excavations, along with many individual documentation processes. That means there are new and surprising findings each year, but, Schopper says, this kind of sensational discovery is very rare.

Further research on this archaeological site, with its important findings for cultural history, will be conducted as part of a joint project between paleontologists from Freie Universität Berlin and archaeologists from the Brandenburg State Office of Historical Preservation, with support from Vattenfall geologists and engineers.

Further Information

Dr. Annette Kossler, Freie Universität Berlin, Institute of Geological Sciences, Tel.: +49 30 838-70894, Email: