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The cultivation of Castanea sativa (Mill.) in Europe, from its origin to its diffusion on a continental scale

Abstract

The history of Castanea sativa (sweet chestnut) cultivation since medieval times has been well described on the basis of the very rich documentation available. Far fewer attempts have been made to give a historical synthesis of the events that led to the cultivation of sweet chestnut in much earlier times. In this article we attempt to reconstruct this part of the European history of chestnut cultivation and its early diffusion by use of different sources of information, such as pollen studies, archaeology, history and literature. Using this multidisciplinary approach, we have tried to identify the roles of the Greek and Roman civilizations in the dissemination of chestnut cultivation on a European scale. In particular, we show that use of the chestnut for food was not the primary driving force behind the introduction of the tree into Europe by the Romans. Apart from the Insubrian Region in the north of the Italian peninsula, no other centre of chestnut cultivation existed in Europe during the Roman period. The Romans may have introduced the idea of systematically cultivating and using chestnut. In certain cases they introduced the species itself; however no evidence of systematic planting of chestnut exists. The greatest interest in the management of chestnut for fruit production most probably developed after the Roman period and can be associated with the socio-economic structures of medieval times. It was then that self-sufficient cultures based on the cultivation of chestnut as a source of subsistence were formed.

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Acknowledgements

Our heartfelt thanks go to our colleagues W.E. Stöckli, F. Villani, R. Drescher-Schneider, W.O. van der Knaap, an anonymous reviewer and F. Bittmann for the critical reading of the manuscript, S. Ragozza for the valuable advice and the original translations of ancient Greek texts, H. Woldring and B. Ammann for allowing us to reproduce selections of their original diagrams, our colleagues C. Grütter, G. Nebel and Ch. Matter of the WSL library and all the staff of the service library NEBIS for their readiness to help and their tenacity with which they have supported us in researching the bibliography, S. Depedrini and D. Furrer for their assistance during cataloguing and recording of the consulted bibliography. Finally, we are indebted to Ch. and J. Favre and to S. Dingwall for the English revision of the manuscript.

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Conedera, M., Krebs, P., Tinner, W. et al. The cultivation of Castanea sativa (Mill.) in Europe, from its origin to its diffusion on a continental scale. Veget Hist Archaeobot 13, 161–179 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00334-004-0038-7

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Keywords

  • Chestnut cultivation
  • Roman period
  • Castanea sativa
  • Palynology
  • Archaeology
  • Classical literature