The controlled use of fire to enhance productivity has been in practice for at least 11,000 years, much earlier than previously believed. This is demonstrated by a recent study led by the University of Barcelona, with the participation of researchers from the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES-CERCA).

The results, published in the journal Catena, indicate that Mesolithic hunter-gatherer communities were already intentionally causing controlled fires to manage the plant environment. Clearing forest areas through fire allowed for the growth of grass and attractive vegetation for the animals they hunted.

Until now, it was believed that large-scale landscape modification by humans did not begin until the advent of agriculture in the Neolithic, about 9,000 years ago. It was also not thought that the regular use of controlled fires had extended into the Iron Age, around 3,000 years ago.

The new study focused on analyzing environmental records from 11,000 years ago from the Laguna de Villena (Alicante, Spain). Through geochemical and sediment charcoal analyses, along with pollen studies, researchers determined that fires were frequent in the area during that time.

Furthermore, by cross-referencing this information with available archaeological data, they concluded that most of these fires did not coincide with periods of drought but with moments of maximum human activity. In other words, they were intentionally caused by the hunter-gatherer communities inhabiting the region.

11,000 years ago, during the Holocene period, the climate in the area was temperate and humid, promoting the expansion of oak and holm oak forests. This, in turn, led to human settlement around the lagoon, rich in resources for subsistence. It was in this context that forests began to be transformed through controlled fires to better manage the territory.

As explained by IPHES researcher Jordi Revelles, this work shows that, despite the widespread idea that hunter-gatherers had a limited impact on the landscape, they actually played an active role in modifying it with fire from very early dates.

The combination of these intentionally caused fires and a subsequent climate change towards drier conditions disrupted the ecosystem balance in the area. Oak and holm oak forests never recovered, giving way to pine formations better adapted to aridity.

From the Neolithic onwards, the reduced availability of fuel due to aridity and agricultural activity resulted in less intense fires. One of the study’s conclusions is that traditional practices such as livestock farming, agriculture, or controlled tree felling help prevent uncontrolled forest proliferation and, consequently, mitigate the severity of forest fires.


Sources

IPHES – Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social | Sánchez-García, C., Revelles, J., Burjachs, F., Euba, I., Expósito, I., Ibáñez, J., Schulte, L., Fernández-López de Pablo, J. (2024). What burned the forest? Wildfires, climate change and human activity in the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in SE Iberian Peninsula. Catena, 234. doi.org/10.1016/j.catena.2023.107542


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