Ancient slash-and-burn in Europe

New study reveals hunter-gatherers in Europe used slash-and-burn cultivation methods.

Slash-and-burn agriculture is commonplace in subsistence farming societies throughout the world to this day. The farmer fells trees and vegetation, then burns it to fertilize the soil before planting. In recent years, people have realized that such methods were used by hunter-gatherers to modify the natural environment long before farming began. Important studies of pre-colonial native American vegetation management have revealed sophisticated understandings of local environments and contributed to wild-fire management. But what about Europe?

Researchers from the University of Tübingen have drilled cores into the Ammer Valley in southern Germany to study ancient fire usage and the extent that climate change and anthropogenic activity changed the local environment. Using plant pollen and charcoal fragments, they showed that between 10,100 and 9,800 years ago, open and moisture-rich vegetation was burnt by natural fires. These fires attracted herbivores, also the growth of hazel trees with their nutritious nuts.

About 9,500 years ago, the hunter-gatherers in the region began to use slash-and-burn methods to modify the environment. Deciduous trees were now dominant and easily controlled with small, but frequent, fires. This allowed the hunting bands to encourage the growth of hazel and other nut-bearing trees, whose harvests yielded significant amount of easily storage winter food. The fires also led to the growth of young grass and other vegetation, much favoured by forest game of all kinds, making hunting easier, especially when carried out with bows-and-arrows equipped with the razor-sharp small barbs known to archaeologists as ‘microliths’.

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Image: Using pollen analyses, micro and macro charcoal remains, and reconstruction of the paleoclimate from sediment cores, the research team studied the landscape evolution of the Ammer Valley.

Credit: Martin Ebner