Changing the face of the Mediterranean

The lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea are the product of a distinctive climate and natural environment that have been transformed by human activities over many millennia (Walsh 2014). 

But when and how were the olive groves of Tuscany, the maquis of Provence and similar iconic Mediterranean landscapes created? What role did the rise and fall in populations play in transforming the environment from nature-dominated to culturally-modified? 

This Leverhulme Trust funded project (2015–2018) aims to provide answers to these questions using two widely available sources of data, namely pollen and archaeological records. 

We will then compare reconstructed trends in population and land use since the advent of Neolithic farming at a pan-Mediterranean scale and via regional case studies, to assess how demographic changes contributed to past and present land-use patterns.


Project background

In this project we are comparing two proxies for landscape change in the circum-Mediterranean region. Changes in forest cover, pasture and agricultural land are being reconstructed using pollen analyses. This involves the transformation of fossil pollen data using a modified version of the pseudobiomization (PBM) approach (Fyfe et al., 2010) that we have already developed and applied in Northern Europe (Fyfe et al., 2015). Long-term changes in human population are derived from results of archaeological excavations and site surveys, and build on approaches that have been used to reconstruct demographic trends across prehistoric Europe north of the Alps (Shennan et al., 2013). These two complementary approaches provide continuous socio-ecological trajectories since the advent of Neolithic farming.


The project draws on the large amount of work which has been previously undertaken by researchers and archived in databases or repositories, such as the European Pollen Database (Leydet et al., 2007-2015) with newly developed sediment core chronologies (Giesecke et al., 2014), and thousands of archaeological sites recorded in regional surveys. Additional non-EPD pollen data will be used for case study regions. We are transforming pollen records into past land cover classes using a modified version of the pseudobiomisation approach (Fyfe et al. 2015). Long-term demographic trends are being created from published archaeological data sets. For the earlier periods we are utilising measures of statistical significance based on summed radiocarbon date probability distributions developed as a proxy for past population (Shennan et al., 2013).


Workshop participants at Santuari de Lluc (Mallorca)

Project workshop

Comparing pollen and archaeological archives of Mediterranean landscape alterations and demographic change 

A project workshop was recently held in Mallorca (Spain) at the Santuari de Lluc (September 7-10). The event was jointly organised with the University of the Balearics and brought together 31 palaeoecologists and archaeologists from across Europe to share expertise and analyse trends in synthesised fossil pollen and archaeological datasets from across the Mediterranean, which have been transformed to provide proxies for past land cover and population change. Researchers worked in small groups based on six regions of the Mediterranean to plan publications as part of a special issue of The Holocene. The workshop concluded with a field excursion to the Serra de Tramuntana region and a guided tour of the Balearic Museum of Natural Sciences in Sóller.

Project case study regions with European Pollen Database sites

Case study regions

The project is using pollen records and archaeological site survey data from a series of case study regions, including southeastern Spain, France’s Rhône valley, Etruria (Tuscany and part of Lazio) in Italy, the Peloponnese in Greece, southwestern Turkey and the southern Levant. 

These have been selected because they have good coverage of pollen records and archaeological site survey data, and because they provide a geographical spectrum from west to east through the Mediterranean basin. 

We are working with local project partners who have been responsible for the collection of most of the primary data in each study area. The map shows the selected case study regions with pollen records available from the European Pollen Database

Recent publications

  1. Woodbridge, J., Roberts, C.N. and Fyfe, R.M. (in press) Holocene vegetation and land-cover dynamics in the Mediterranean from pollen data. Journal of Biogeography.
  2. Woodbridge, J., Fyfe, R.M., Roberts, C.N., Mazier, F. and Davis, B. (2018) European forest cover since the start of Neolithic agriculture: a critical comparison of pollen-based reconstructions. PAGES (Past Global Change) Magazine. 
  3. Fyfe, R.M., Woodbridge, J. and Roberts, C.N. (2018) Trajectories of change in Mediterranean Holocene vegetation through classification of pollen data. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany. 27, 351-364.
  4. Roberts, C.N., Woodbridge, J., Shennan, S., Bevan, A., Palmisano, A. and Asouti, E. (2018) Human responses and non-responses to climatic variations during the Last Glacial-Interglacial transition in the eastern Mediterranean. Quaternary Science Reviews. 184, 47-67. 
  5. Palmisano, A., Bevan, A. and Shennan, S. (2017) Comparing archaeological proxies for long-term population patterns: An example from central Italy. Journal of Archaeological Science. 87, 59-72.