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Our ancestors faced large-scale environmental challenges thousands of years ago. Understanding their traditional practices can help modern Europeans adapt to climate change today.

The moors, with their woody, scrubby plants and sandy soil, cover large areas of Europe. Although the soil is not very nutritious, the moors are home to unique flora and fauna. Once considered natural scrubland, most moorlands formed when forests were cleared for agriculture in prehistoric times.

The existence of the moors is maintained with the grazing and burning techniques of land management over long periods. They need to be constantly renewed and in some ways the moors are deeply intertwined with the human cultural landscape.

Many heathlands have survived for thousands of years through countless climatic, demographic, economic and infrastructural transformations. Their resilience may suggest ways in which humans and nature can dynamically thrive together, if their ecological fabric can be understood.

Today the heathlands are threatened with more than 90% of them having disappeared in the last 150 years, mainly due to the intensification of agriculture, a lack of sustained management and because of pollution. industrial.

The ANTHEA projectalso known as Anthropogenic Heathlands: The Social Organization of Super-Resilient Past Human Ecosystems, studies how human interactions with moorlands have changed over time.

“There is currently a trend towards nature conservation and restoration based on the idea that we want to take people out of nature,” said Professor Mette Løvschal, an archaeologist at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, which studies Neolithic heather landscapes from an archaeological perspective. Yet she argues that “the moors and their survival over 5,000 years depend on human presence”.

Pasture areas

Thousands of years ago, people in Northern Europe cleared tracts of post-glacial forest to create space for their grazing animals. Naturally occurring species of heather have thrived in these landscapes, providing a persistent source of winter pasture and other valuable resources such as fuel and bedding.

For thousands of years, humans have continued to nurture these special areas, in which nature and humans depend on each other. The question is which features of the landscape – location, soil composition, habitation, land use and organizational factors, for example – are important for the survival of heathland.

Moorland offers pastoralists an advantage over grass in that, although grass is richer in nutrients than heather, it tends to die back in winter. In fact, farmers’ livestock – sheep and goats in particular – can graze the heath during the cold months, without the farmers having to collect and store the fodder. These landscapes require continuous maintenance over generations, Løvschal explained.

“The moors themselves are an unstable landscape,” Løvschal said. “Most places quite quickly, in 15 to 25 years, turn into forest if you don’t manage them with grazing, cutting or controlled fires.”

Factory records

For the ANTHEA project, researchers combine the archaeological history of man with ancient plant records in seven case study areas ranging from Norway to Ireland.

“Many of us work with archaeological material,” Løvschal said. “When did the first types of settlements appear in the moors? Is there evidence of people using heather or turf as building material, fuel or bedding? »

With this information, researchers will see how people have engaged with the heath on a practical, social, and ideological level.

Excavating ancient pollen can reveal which plants once inhabited the landscape. Pollen from trees, shrubs and grasses blows through the air before settling on the ground or sinking to the bottom of a body of water. Over time, soil and organic matter cover this pollen, trapping it in the soil.

By extracting long cylindrical samples of soil, called cores, from the bottom of lakes or wetlands, researchers can identify and date pollen and ultimately reconstruct the ancient landscape. The microscopic charcoal also indicates if the heath has been burned and when.

Nice balance

It is not the first time that moorlands have been threatened, Løvschal said. During the Bronze Age, around 5,000 years ago, people destroyed large areas of moorland and grassland to create human burial mounds, called burial mounds. Unfortunately, this activity “has led to an ecological disaster” because the grass cover causes an extreme depletion of soil fertility. On the other hand, there were also times when humans and moors were “in nice balance”.

One of the main questions addressed by the ANTHEA project is how this ‘beautiful balance’ was achieved by different pastoral groups across Europe and ‘whether the long-term survival of these moorlands was the product of people making very similar things or whether they have given rise to a myriad of ways of living and organizing.

The Terra Nova The project also looks at ancient landscapes to identify ways in which humans can sustainably coexist with nature.

“We want to understand how natural landscapes have been shaped over time in order to find the best practical guidelines and solutions for sustainable land use,” said Professor Karl-Johan Lindholm, an archaeologist at Uppsala University and co-investigator on TerraNova.

historical eras

Archeology divides historical eras based on human technology and tool development, so we have Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age.

Anthropology, on the other hand, identifies human organization by size and complexity, so you have community, tribe, and state, Lindholm explained. “None of these conventional explanatory frameworks are really useful for land management.” This is why researchers apply an interdisciplinary approach, using information from archaeology, ecology, climatology and landscape studies.

The project studies land use over time in different “field labs”, which run along river basins in Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands, as well as in Portugal, Romania and Spain, said Lindholm. Watersheds represent a number of different environments through which water flows to a river.

Ecosystem study

By exploring existing data in archaeological and paleoecological records (the study of ecosystems in the distant past), the project will model vegetation, animal distribution and human land use over time to develop different scenarios and models for land use.

“Our ambition is to have a digital European atlas,” Lindholm said.

TerraNova researchers also collaborate with people who currently manage land to provide information and tools to decision makers.

“Fundamentally, TerraNova’s goal is to better understand these types of landscape stories in order to provide recommendations, tools, and guidelines to help today’s land managers understand and manage their landscapes more sustainable,” he said.

The research in this article was funded by the European Research Council of the EU and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA). This article was originally published in Horizonthe European magazine for research and innovation.

Helen D. Jessen