Climatic change and contemporaneous land-use phases north and south of the Alps 2300 BC to 800 AD

Tinner, Willy; Lotter, André F.; Ammann, Brigitta; Conedera, Marco; Hubschmid, Priska; van Leeuwen, Jacqueline; Wehrli, Michael (2003). Climatic change and contemporaneous land-use phases north and south of the Alps 2300 BC to 800 AD. Quaternary Science Reviews, 22(14), pp. 1447-1460. Elsevier 10.1016/S0277-3791(03)00083-0

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Fluctuations in the Δ14C curve and subsequent gaps of archaeological findings at 800–650 and 400–100 BC in western and central Europe may indicate major climate-driven land-abandonment phases. To address this hypothesis radiocarbon-dated sediments from four lakes in Switzerland were studied palynologically. Pollen analysis indicates contemporaneous phases of forest clearances and of intensified land-use at 1450–1250 BC, 650–450 BC, 50 BC–100 AD and around 700 AD. These land-use expansions coincided with periods of warm climate as recorded by the Alpine dendroclimatic and Greenland oxygen isotope records. Our results suggest that harvest yields would have increased synchronously over wide areas of central and southern Europe during periods of warm and dry climate. Combined interpretation of palaeoecological and archaeological findings suggests that higher food production led to increased human populations. Positive long-term trends in pollen values of Cerealia and Plantago lanceolata indicate that technical innovations during the Bronze and Iron Age (e.g. metal ploughs, scythes, hay production, fertilising methods) gradually increased agricultural productivity. The successful adoption of yield-increasing advances cannot be explained by climatic determinism alone. Combined with archaeological evidence, our results suggest that despite considerable cycles of spatial and demographic reorganisation (repeated land abandonments and expansions, as well as large-scale migrations and population decreases), human societies were able to shift to lower subsistence levels without dramatic ruptures in material culture. However, our data imply that human societies were not able to compensate rapidly for harvest failures when climate deteriorated. Agriculture in marginal areas was abandoned, and spontaneous reforestations took place on abandoned land south and north of the Alps. Only when the climate changed again to drier and warmer conditions did a new wide-spread phase of forest clearances and field extensions occur, allowing the reoccupation of previously abandoned areas. Spatial distribution of cereal cultivation and growth requirements of Cerealia species suggest that increases in precipitation were far more decisive in driving crop failures over central and southern Europe than temperature decreases.

Item Type:

Journal Article (Original Article)


08 Faculty of Science > Department of Biology > Institute of Plant Sciences (IPS) > Palaeoecology
08 Faculty of Science > Department of Biology > Institute of Plant Sciences (IPS)

UniBE Contributor:

Tinner, Willy, Lotter, André Franz, Ammann, Brigitta, van Leeuwen, Jacqueline Francisca, Wehrli, Michael


500 Science > 580 Plants (Botany)








Peter Alfred von Ballmoos-Haas

Date Deposited:

04 Dec 2015 17:12

Last Modified:

02 Mar 2023 23:26

Publisher DOI:





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