Maps of a now-submerged land help reconstruct the lives of ancient Europeans

Combing through sand on the beach, you can discover rich clues to the natural world. Likely, your findings won’t be monumental— maybe a few shark teeth or shells. That’s unless you’re in a region known as the Zandmotor or sand engine on the coast of the Netherlands. One particularly prolific beachcomber Willy Van Windgerden has uncovered more than 500 relics from the area, that tell the story of ancient humans and how they lived in a vanished landscape. Van Wingerden recently brought one of her finds to researchers. They concluded that the birch tar smeared at the end of the tool was evidence that Neanderthals could produce complex tools that took several days to make. These discoveries all became possible in 2012 when material dredged from the bottom of the North Sea was dumped on the beach to create a buffer against sea-level rise. But the dredged area hasn’t always been covered by water. Until the end of the last ice age sea-level was 70 meters lower, exposing a hundred eighty thousand square kilometers of land— an area known as Doggerland. Ancient humans likely traversed Doggerland for hundreds of thousands of years. Researchers have long suspected this underwater area to berife with clues to the past. In the past few decades, fishermen of the North Sea have netted fascinating finds like the tusks and skulls of woolly mammoths and woolly rhinoceros. And as dredging and excavation have ramped up, more artifacts have seen the light of day. These artifacts on the beach or found from other dredge piles are usually well-preserved enough to date, and researchers can confine their origin to the few square kilometer area where they were dredged from. Researchers have started a systematic survey to unearth the history of Doggerland using clues from dredging sites and technological advances in mapping submerged landscapes. Using seismic surveys, researchers can understand the underwater topography of the North Sea. This helps pinpoint likely areas in the landscape that ancient people traversed. The first site discovered using this technique was by Europe’s Lost Frontier— the mouth of a prehistoric river found near the Brown Banks, an area 50 kilometers off the UK coast. A large, flint core axe was recovered from this location and there could be other finds to come. Sediment cores extracted from these promising areas can yield artifacts—and fossils and millions of
DNA fragments. By comparing the DNA fragments extracted from cores around the prehistoric Rhine River to already known genomes, researchers have identified traces of a variety of animals—bears, birds, boars, and plants like hazel and meadow grasses that lived in Doggerland in years past. These fauna and flora show that parts of Doggerland were lush and fertile—conditions ideal for humans. While the DNA of seagrasses and fish in the core show the transition to an estuarine and marine environment. These transitions can give greater detail about the history of sea-level rise in the area. It could even tell us how modern civilizations have responded to similar changes. Beachcombers have discovered many well-preserved human skeletal fragments. And of the teeth and bones tested, several have shown evidence of DNA. These new samples can help provide a more complete history of Europeans’ genetic past. As surveys and cores increase in number, researchers hope to not only better understand Doggerland, but use these same techniques to understand other submerged landscapes around the world. For example, researchers think that traces of the very first Americans lie beneath the ocean off their western shores of North America. Doggerland is just one underwater site teeming with ancient history. And with these new methods in hand, we may just know where to look for more.

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