Archaeological Finds and Ancient History in Germany

Archaeological Finds and Ancient History in Germany

When you hear the words “German history,” what comes to mind? World War II, Hitler, and the Third Reich? World War I? Or does your mind immediately flip to names like Charlemagne, Martin Luther, and Gutenberg? Though the arrival of the East Germanic tribes in the area now known as Germany has been dated back to approximately 500 B.C., fossils found in Germany offer a window into a history much, much older.
by Nicolette Stewart

Take the Heidelberg Jaw, also known as the Mauer Jaw, a fossilized jawbone discovered in a sandpit southeast of Heidelberg in 1907 and thought to be around 600,000 years old.  It was classified as Homo heidelbergensis, but this assertion has gone in and out of favor among scientists in the years since.  Though the Heidelberg Jaw has been overshadowed by other early human finds, Homo heidelbergensis is thought to be “the last common ancestor of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, and so is a central part of the debate on human origins.” (source)  The specimen is kept in a safe at the Institute of Earth Sciences at the University of Heidelberg, and visitors can view a replica in both the institute’s museum and a small museum in the Mauer town hall.

In 2013, scientists discovered fossilized remains of a prehistoric lizard thought to be more than 240 million years old.  The lizard, which was found in a small southern-German town called Vellberg, provided evidence that “the ancestors of lizards predated the existence of most dinosaurs.” (source)

Meanwhile, fossils have been turning up in the Messel Pit (German: Grube Messel) since 1900.  Mining of the area stopped in 1971, and when the state began plans to turn the pit into a landfill, amateur collectors were allowed to take fossils from the area.  What they found—fossilized remains dating from between 57 and 36 million years ago, that have helped scientists understand the evolutions of mammals—led to the halt of landfill plans for the site and the 1995 addition of Messel Pit to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.  Today, Messel Pit is also a tourist attraction, and you can find visiting information here

German scientists abroad

When ancient history isn’t being dug from Germany’s own soil, it is often being discovered by German scientists.  For example, in 2012, it was a research team from University of Göttingen led by German paleontologist Alexander Schmidt who discovered 230-million-year-old insects in amber specimens from the Italian Dolomites.  While no one will be recreating the dinosaurs from their finds, their age—100 million years older than any arthropods found in amber—have filled in another small part of our picture of evolution on Earth.

Just last year, German scientists discovered 400,000-thousand-year-old human DNA—300,000 years older than the oldest human DNA found previously.  Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig extracted the DNA from a fossilized bone found in Spain, and it is currently the oldest known DNA in existence.

by Nicolette Stewart