In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Kevin Walsh of the University of York traces the history of the human occupation of Europe’s alpine region.
Kevin Walsh is a senior lecturer in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York where he has overseen two major projects investigating the long term history of human activity in the Alps. His secondary area of interest relates to the politics of heritage conservation and display, a subject he addresses in The Representation of the Past. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Leicester.
Dr. Kevin Walsh – Human Settlement of Alpine Areas
Continuous, often, laborious and physically demanding research in the zones above 2000m in the Ecrins National Park in the French Alps has radically changed our understanding of the last 9,000 years of human activity and environmental change in these high altitude areas. Traditionally, high altitude zones were perceived, as at best challenging, at worst, unviable for sustained human activity.
The results of our work – founded on archaeological excavations and the studies of ancient vegetation patterns have demonstrated the following trends. As soon as the glaciers started their retreat, hunter-gatherer groups started to move into these areas, with many camps dated to about 9,000 years ago. During the Neolithic and the Bronze Age, when farming took hold from about 6,000 years ago, people continued to use the high altitude areas for hunting, whilst farming took place towards the valley bottoms. During the Bronze Age (about 4,000 years ago), pastoralism developed, with shepherds bringing their animals to the high altitude areas during the summer, and probably burning areas of the forest to create new openings.
Although the Roman period is characterised by phases of climatic amelioration after the deterioration of the Iron Age, the increase in human activity that is seen in low-lying areas is NOT reflected at high altitude. The Medieval period, including the Little Ice Age (16th – 19th centuries), witnesses a steady increase in human use of these landscapes. Despite the supposed inclement nature of the Little Ice Age, human activity achieves its zenith, and the combination of people and climate produces the open and anthropic landscape that we see today.