Vegetation History and Archaeobotany

, Volume 20, Issue 2, pp 109–124 | Cite as

A palaeoecological investigation into the role of fire and human activity in the development of montane grasslands in East Africa

  • Jemma FinchEmail author
  • Rob Marchant
Original Article


Human activity has been widely implicated in the origin and expansion of montane grasslands in East Africa, yet little palaeoecological evidence exists to test whether these grasslands are natural or secondary. Pollen and charcoal data derived from two Holocene records in the Eastern Arc mountains of Tanzania are used as a case study to investigate the supposed secondary nature of montane grasslands in Africa. Fossil pollen data are used to detect vegetation change, and charcoal analysis is used to reconstruct fire history. The pollen data are characterised by stable proportions of local taxa suggesting permanence of grasslands throughout the past ~13,000 years. Recent increases in fire adapted taxa such as Morella point towards the development of a grassland/forest patch mosaic possibly associated with burning. However, robust evidence of human activity is absent from the records, which may be attributed to the late human occupation of the mountains. The records indicate long-term persistence of grasslands which, coupled with a lack of evidence of human activity, suggests that these grasslands are not secondary. These data support the hypothesis that grasslands are an ancient and primary component of montane vegetation in Africa, but that they experienced some expansion during the late Holocene as a result of changing fire regime.


Eastern Arc mountains Uluguru mountains Secondary grassland Pollen Charcoal 



Supported by EU Grant No.: EU-MXC-KITE-517098 to RM and NERC radiocarbon allocation 1227.0407 to JF and RM. Permission for fieldwork in Tanzania was granted by the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH) and supported by the Institute for Resource Assessment, University of Dar es Salaam. Additional radiocarbon dates were provided by Matthew Wooller. Field assistance from Bruno Mwano, Thomas Kikwato and Boniface Mhoro is gratefully acknowledged. Jane Wheeler and Margaret Atherden assisted with the swirling technique. Rebecca Sutton and Dave Hay provided logistical support in the laboratory. Pollen identification was aided by experts including Annie Vincens, Guillaume Buchet, Cassian Mumbi, Stephen Mathai Rucina and Louis Scott. Figure 1 was professionally drafted by Ruth Howison. We thank Trevor Hill, Karin Holmgren, Jon Lovett, David Taylor, Katie Selby and two anonymous reviewers for useful comments which greatly improved the manuscript. KITE researchers Antje Ahrends, Phil Platts and Al Jump provided invaluable support in this research. This work contributes to the African Pollen Database and the Global Land Project and forms part of the doctoral research carried out by JF.


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© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.York Institute for Tropical Ecosystem Dynamics (KITE), Environment DepartmentUniversity of YorkYorkUK
  2. 2.Department of Environmental and Geographical ScienceUniversity of Cape TownRondeboschSouth Africa

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