Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 44, Issue 1, pp 43–57 | Cite as

Ancient Deforestation Revisited

  • J. Donald HughesEmail author
Special issue: Environmental History


The image of the classical Mediterranean environment of the Greeks and Romans had a formative influence on the art, literature, and historical perception of modern Europe and America. How closely does is this image congruent with the ancient environment as it in reality existed? In particular, how forested was the ancient Mediterranean world, was there deforestation, and if so, what were its effects? The consensus of historians, geographers, and other scholars from the mid-nineteenth century through the first three quarters of the twentieth century was that human activities had depleted the forests to a major extent and caused severe erosion. My research confirmed this general picture. Since then, revisionist historians have questioned these conclusions, maintaining instead that little environmental damage was done to forests and soils in ancient Greco-Roman times. In a reconsideration of the question, this paper looks at recent scientific work providing proxy evidence for the condition of forests at various times in ancient history. I look at three scientific methodologies, namely anthracology, palynology, and computer modeling. Each of these avenues of research offers support for the concept of forest change, both in abundance and species composition, and episodes of deforestation and erosion, and confirms my earlier work.


deforestation erosion Mediterranean landscapes Greco-Roman world forest history anthracology palynology landscape modeling 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Andrieu, Valérie, Brugiapaglia, Elisabetta, Cheddadi, Rachid, Ponel, Philippe, Reille, Maurice, de Beaullieu, Jacques-Louis, and Barbero, Marcel. 1999. “A Computerized Data Base for the Palynological Recording of Human Activity in the Mediterranean Basin.” In Environmental Reconstruction in Mediterranean Landscape Archaeology, ed. Philippe Leveau, Frédéric Trément, kevin Walsh, and Graeme Barker, 17–24. Oxford, UK: Oxbow Books.Google Scholar
  2. Asouti, Eleni. 2009. Charcoal Analysis Web. Accessed 2 June 2010.
  3. Chabal, Lucie and Laubenheimer, Fanette. 1994. “L’atelier gallo-romain de Sallèles d’Aude: les potiers et le bois.” Terre Cuite et Société, la Céramique, Document Technique, économique et Culturel (XIVes Recontres Internationales d’Archéologie et d’Histoire d’Antibes), Juan les Pins, CNRS, pp. 99–129.Google Scholar
  4. Cheyette, Fredric L. 2008. “The Disappearance of the Ancient Landscape and the Climatic Anomaly of the Early Middle Ages: A Question to be Pursued.” Early Medieval Europe 16(2): 127–165.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Cicero, Marcus Tullius. 1880–1885. Joseph B. Mayor (ed.), De Natura Deorum 2. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Davis, Diana K. 2007. Resurrecting the Granary of Rome: Environmental History and French Colonial Expansion in North Africa. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Gates, Lydia Dümenil and Liess, Stefan. 2001. “Impacts of Deforestation and Afforestation in the Mediterranean Region as Simulated by the MPI Atmospheric GCM.” Global and Planetary Change 30: 309–328.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Godwin, H. and Tansley, A.G. 1941. “Prehistoric Charcoals as Evidence of Former Vegetation, Soil and Climate.” Journal of Ecology 29: 117.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Grove, A.T. and Rackham, Oliver. 2001. The Nature of Mediterranean Europe: An Ecological History. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Horden, Peregrine and Purcell, Nicholas. 2000. The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  11. Hughes, J. Donald. 1975. Ecology in Ancient Civilizations. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.Google Scholar
  12. Hughes, J. Donald. 1994. Pan’s Travail: Environmental Problems of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Huntley, Brian J. and Birks, Harry John Betteley. 1983. An Atlas of Past and Present Pollen Maps for Europe: 0–13,000 Years Ago. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Lamb, H.F., Eicher, U. and Switsur, V.R. 1989. “An 18,000 year record of vegetation, lake-level, and climatic change from Tigalmamine, Middle Atlas, Morocco.” Journal of Biogeography 16: 65–74.Google Scholar
  15. Laubenheimer, Fanette. 2001. 20 Ans de Recherches à Sallèles d’Aude: Le Monde des Potiers Gallo-Romans. Besançon: Presses Universitaires de Franche-Comté.Google Scholar
  16. Manten, A.A. 1967. “Lennart von Post and the Foundation of Modern Palynology.” Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 1: 11–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Meiggs, Russell. 1982. Trees and Timber in the Ancient Mediterranean World. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  18. Neumann, K. 1992. “The Contribution of Anthracology to the Study of the Late Quaternary Vegetation History of the Mediterranean Region and Africa.” Bulletin de la Société Botanique de France 139: 421–440.Google Scholar
  19. Papanastasis, Vasilios P. 1985. “Integrating Goats into Mediterranean Forests.” FAO Corporate Document Repository, Unasylva No. 154.Google Scholar
  20. Pinto, Bruno, Aguiar, Carlos and Partidário, Maria. 2010. “Brief Historical Ecology of Northern Portugal During the Holocene.” Environment and History 16(1): 3–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Planchais, N. 1982. “Palynologie lagunaire de l’etang de Mauguio: Paléoenvironnement vegetal et evolution anthropique.” Pollen et Spores 24(1): 93–118.Google Scholar
  22. Reale, Oreste and Dirmeyer, Paul. 2000. “Modeling the Effects of Vegetation on Mediterranean Climate During the Roman Classical Period; Part I, Climate History and Model Sensitivity.” Global and Planetary Change 25: 163–184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Reale, Oreste and Shukla, Jagadish. 2000. “Modeling the Effects of Vegetation on Mediterranean Climate During the Roman Classical Period; Part II: Model Simulation.” Global and Planetary Change 25: 185–214.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Runnels, Curtis N. 1995. “Environmental Degradation in Ancient Greece.” Scientific American 272(3): 96–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Salisbury, K.J. and Jane, F.W. 1940. “Charcoals from Maiden Castle and Their Significance in Relation to the Vegetation and Climatic Conditions in Prehistoric Times.” Journal of Ecology 28: 310–325.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Triat-Laval, H. 1978. Unpub. “Contribution Pollenanalytique à l’Histoire Tardi-et Postglaciare de la Basse Vallée du Rhône.” Ph.D. Thesis, University of Aix- Marseilles III, Marseilles.Google Scholar
  27. Vernet, Jean-Louis. 1999. “Reconstructing Vegetation and Landscapes in the Mediterranean: The Contribution of Anthracology.” in Environmental Reconstruction in Mediterranean Landscape Archaeology, ed. Philippe Leveau, Frédéric Trément, kevin Walsh, and Graeme Barker, 25–36. Oxford, UK: Oxbow Books.Google Scholar
  28. Walsh, Kevin. 2004. “Caring About Sediments: The Role of Geoarchaeology in Mediterranean Landscapes.” Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 17(2): 223–245.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Willcox, G.H. 1974. “A History of Deforestation as Indicated by Charcoal Analysis of Four Sites in Eastern Anatolia.” Anatolian Studies 24: 117–133.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Willcox, George. 1999. “Charcoal Analysis and Holocene Vegetation History in Southern Syria.” Quaternary Science Reviews 18(4–5): 711–716.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of HistoryUniversity of DenverDenverUSA

Personalised recommendations