According to some, it must have been a nice life:a bit of canoeing and roasting fresh fish and meat over a fire. This is what life must have been like for the first inhabitants of the Dutch coastal area, about 9,000 years ago, when the North Sea plain filled with water again after the last ice age. For the first time since the occupation by Homo sapiens it was a pleasant climate. The new book 'Treasures of the mammoth beach' reports on the basis of the latest excavations on the Maasvlakte.
Excavations on Maasvlakte 2 offer a special glimpse into the past. The oldest finds date back to the period between 10,500 and 8,500 years ago, right after the last ice age, the Weichselian. The people who lived in this wetland area at this time – the Middle Stone Age – were still hunter-gatherers. It was not until a thousand years later that the first farmers arrived in 'the Netherlands'. The Middle Stone Age – or the Mesolithic – was also special in our country because modern humans (Homo sapiens ) experienced a relatively warm climate in northern Europe for the first time.
Five million world citizens
9000 years ago, only five million people lived on earth (for comparison:the Netherlands currently has almost 17 million inhabitants). Until half a century ago, archaeologists thought that our coastal regions were not yet inhabited at the beginning of the Holocene – the modern warm age.
There is now sufficient evidence that the area was indeed already inhabited at the time, although it did not involve large numbers of people. The coastal inhabitants then lived in a swampy area, among wild animals such as otters, beavers, hyenas and deer. Their predecessors had hunted mammoths and other steppe animals in the previous cold period.
We are learning more and more about human habitation in these regions, not least thanks to the many recent drillings and excavations by geologists and archaeologists. The extensive investigation of the soil in this part of South Holland was initiated by the construction of Maasvlakte 1 and 2. Archaeological excavations in Rotterdam were conducted underwater for the first time! This far west of the harbor had never been dug before.
The recent research is accessible and described in the book ‘Treasures of the mammoth beach’, an initiative of the Port of Rotterdam Authority. In the publication, the economic activities for the construction of the Maasvlakte are interwoven with the search of geologists, paleontologists and archaeologists. These scientists are looking for sources from the soil that can give us more insight into the landscape, climate and life of coastal inhabitants in the early Holocene.
In 2011, for example, successful excavations took place in the Yangtzehaven. Geologists had already demonstrated through drilling that a 10,000-year-old river dune was buried here, the top of which had been eroded by the advancing North Sea water. Drilling had also revealed that people had lived on the river dune during warm periods. The chance was therefore great to find more traces and even objects from that time on the river dune; which indeed happened. This was also a special excavation from a technical point of view because it concerned a prehistoric 'land discovery' that had to be carried out underwater.
An additional advantage for archaeologists in this region is that artifacts are better preserved in wet soil than on dry sandy soils. Very small finds – almost inconspicuous to a layman – can be of great significance to archaeologists. The different scientists involved in 'Treasures of the mammoth beach' were interviewed, told enthusiastically which moments in the research made a big impression.
Such as the discovery of burnt bones of a wild boar, which were found on the flank of the river dune. The location and date are a wealth of information:people lived here 8400 years ago!
In addition to wild boar and deer meat, the hunters ate many types of fish, berries and tubers. In the millennia after that, the river dune is visited more often, according to the excavations, after which it disappears into the North Sea for good.
Pretty soon in the Holocene, the formation of river dunes comes to an end for an obvious reason. There was more vegetation, so that the sand in the empty riverbeds no longer blown up. The North Sea also conquered more and more area and flooded large parts of the deltas of Meuse and Rhine. The sea level rose by as much as one meter every century! Various maps – from the Atlas ‘The Netherlands in the Holocene’ – indicate how changeable the coastline was.
Aspirated Ice Age fossils
As the title implies, 'Treasures from the mammoth beach' not only about the period after the last ice age, when the North Sea advanced. The many ice age fossils, which were sucked up further out to sea with trailing suction hopper dredgers and which also regularly end up with palaeontologists via fishermen, are also given a place in the book.
The fossils sucked up by the dredgers now make the beaches of the Second Maasvlakte – in addition to surfers – also popular with fossil seekers. These are mainly the remains of the large mammals that inhabited the mammoth steppe – now the North Sea floor – until hundreds of thousands of years ago, such as mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, wisents and hyenas. Their environment was green and consisted of grass and low shrubs.
Man hardly played a significant role on the steppe. Probably only a few hundred wandered in small groups on the North Sea plain. Given the large percentage of fossils of 90%, the by far dominant animal group must have been the mammoth. Half of Treasures of the Mammoth Beach is about the animals of the North Sea steppe, of which the number of species has been remarkably large.
For example, there are – as shown by in situ excavations on the Maasvlakte – three species of rhinoceroses lived in a span of hundreds of thousands of years, and in warm times there were also forest elephants and hippos. Drilling further out to sea – in the current Eurogeul – reveals even more species, such as the musk ox and walrus. The many drawn and painted impressions, photos and additional explanations (such as dating and changing faunas) about purely Dutch geology, paleontology and archeology make 'Treasures of the Mammoetstrand' more than worth it.