A historical ecology of the Ecrins (Southern French Alps): Archaeology and palaeoecology of the Mesolithic to the Medieval period

Kevin James Walsh, M. Court-Picon, J.L. de Beaulieu, Frederic Guiter, F. Mocci, Suzi Richer, R. Sinet, Brigitte Talon, S. Tzortzis

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This paper elucidates the nature of humane-environment interactions in a mountainous landscape (the southern zone of the Ecrins, French Alps) from the Mesolithic through to the Post-Medieval Period. We present an integrated programme of palynology, pedo- and archaeo-anthracology, and archaeology. These data permit the development of a historical ecology that allows us to differentiate between climatic and anthropogenic influences on vegetation, and the development of anthropogenic landscapes in an Alpine region. This study is of profound relevance for the broader understanding of humane-environment interactions in ecologically sensitive environments both within the Alpine arc, but also beyond this region. We identify and explain evidence for possible human landscape management practices in a high altitude landscape. Palynology defines the broad floral context and evolution of the environment through the Holocene. Palynology also permits an assessment of human activities and practices (arable agriculture, pastoralism and haymaking). The combination of these data with anthracological and archaeological evidence permits a nuanced assessment of human interaction with the landscape. We consider phases of anthropological-ecological succession across the range of altitudes, from valley-bottom to the alpine zones in the Ecrins National Park. Four important stages of landscape use and change have been inferred from our evidence: the Mesolithic, the Chalcolithic/Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman, and (Post)Medieval. During the Mesolithic (c. 8000e4500 BC), amajor event is the expansion of fir in the montane stage.At higher altitudes, people exploit the ecotone, defined by the forest edge (or tree-line): an ideal zone for hunting. The Neolithic sees low-altitude clearances, but a continuation of hunting and low levels of human impact on high-altitude vegetation. The Chalcolithic/Bronze Age (2400e1000 BC) sees complex interplay of climatic changes, and the appearance of direct human-intervention in the high altitude landscape as part of a new transhumant system. Although the Roman Period is characterised by phases of climatic amelioration after the deterioration of the Iron Age, the increase in human activity that is usually seen in low-lying areas is not reflected in the sub-alpine and alpine altitudes. The Medieval Period, including the Little Ice Age, witnesses a steady increase in human use of these landscapes, with forest manipulation and clearance becoming the defining characteristics of these areas. Despite the supposed inclement nature of the Little Ice Age, human activity achieves its zenith, and the combination people and climate produces the most open and managed landscape of the Holocene.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)52-73
Number of pages22
JournalQuaternary International
Issue number5
Early online date21 Sept 2013
Publication statusPublished - 5 Dec 2014

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