March 23 (UPI) -- The ice that covered much of Europe during the first Quaternary glaciation period came and went in Germany much earlier than scientists previously thought.
New research suggests Germany was covered by glaciers as early as 450,000 years ago, and that the earliest human settlers arrived as glaciers receded some 400,000 years ago. Previous estimates put the peak of the Quaternary glaciation period in Germany at 350,000 years ago.
Until now, sediment samples from this particular period of geologic history have been hard to come by. But mining operations outside of Leipzig have revealed sediment strata representing the Quaternary glaciation period.
"The Quaternary sediments in central Germany are perfect archives to understand the climate shifts that occurred in the region during the last 450,000 years," Tobias Lauer, a geochronologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, said in a news release. "This is because all sediments representing the ice advances and retreats of Scandinavian glaciers into Europe are preserved here."
Sediment cores collected from the Weisse Elster and Saale rivers in Saxony also helped scientists pinpoint the arrival of the first glaciation period in Germany.
"By dating the river deposits systematically we found that the first ice coverage of central Germany during the Elsterian glaciation -- named after the river Elster -- occurred during marine isotope stage 12, likely about 450,000 years ago, which is 100,000 years earlier than previously thought," Lauer said.
Researchers also found Middle Paleolithic stone artifacts among the sediment layers from the Weisse Elster and Saale river basins. The stone scrapers suggest humans entered Germany as early as 400,000 years ago, as glaciers first receded.
Researchers detailed their study of Middle Paleolithic and Pleistocene sediments in the journal Scientific Reports.
"Our dates will have a major impact on the understanding of the timing of glacial cycles and climatic shifts of ice-age Europe," the scientists wrote. "The first major glaciation had a huge impact on the environment and re-modeled the entire landscape. The newly determined ages of the Lower and Middle Paleolithic artefacts will help us in the future to reconstruct the ways in which humans populated or re-populated central Germany and central Europe following this major climatic impact."