Vegetation History and Archaeobotany

, Volume 14, Issue 4, pp 510–517 | Cite as

Water management practices and climate in ancient agriculture: inferences from the stable isotope composition of archaeobotanical remains

  • Juan P. Ferrio
  • José Luis ArausEmail author
  • Ramon Buxó
  • Jordi Voltas
  • Jordi Bort
Original Article


Carbon isotope discrimination (Δ13C) in charred grains from archaeological sites provides reliable information about water availability of ancient crops. However, as cereals are cultivated plants, they may reflect not only climatic fluctuations, but also the effect on water status of certain agronomic practices, such as sowing in naturally wet soils or irrigation. In this work, we propose a methodological approach to combine Δ13C data from different plant species, in order to discriminate between climate-derived and anthropogenic effects on ancient crops. We updated previous models for estimating water inputs from Δ13C of cereal grains of Hordeum vulgare and Triticum aestivum/durum, and we applied them to published data from several archaeological sites, including samples from the Neolithic to the present day in northeast and southeast Spain, as well as from the Neolithic site of Tell Halula (northwest Syria). We found an important decrease in water availability from the Neolithic to the present time in the three areas of study, especially clear for the two driest areas (southeast Spain and northwest Syria). Potential differences in water management practices between wheat and barley, as well as between cereal and legume crops (Vicia faba and Lens culinaris), are also discussed on the basis of the comparison of Δ13C values across several archaeological sites.


Carbon isotope discrimination (Δ13C) Wheat Barley Legumes Middle Euphrates Iberian Peninsula 



This work was partly supported by the CICYT project BTE2001-3421-C02 and the EC project MENMED (INCO-MED-ICA3-CT-2002-10022). We thank M. Charles, J.L. Vernet, S. Jacomet and F. Bittmann for the useful comments, which have contributed significantly to improve the original manuscript. J.P. Ferrio has a PhD fellowship from the Generalitat de Catalunya


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Juan P. Ferrio
    • 1
  • José Luis Araus
    • 2
    Email author
  • Ramon Buxó
    • 3
  • Jordi Voltas
    • 1
  • Jordi Bort
    • 2
  1. 1.Departament de Producció Vegetal i Ciencia Forestal, E.T.S.E.AUniversitat de LleidaLleidaSpain
  2. 2.Unitat de Fisiologia Vegetal, Departament de Biologia Vegetal, Facultat de BiologiaUniversitat de BarcelonaBarcelonaSpain
  3. 3.Museu d’Arqueologia de CatalunyaGironaSpain

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