Vegetation History and Archaeobotany

, Volume 27, Issue 2, pp 351–364 | Cite as

Trajectories of change in Mediterranean Holocene vegetation through classification of pollen data

  • Ralph M. FyfeEmail author
  • Jessie Woodbridge
  • C. Neil Roberts
Original Article


Quantification of vegetation cover from pollen analysis has been a goal of palynologists since the advent of the method in 1916 by the great Lennart von Post. Pollen-based research projects are becoming increasingly ambitious in scale, and the emergence of spatially extensive open-access datasets, advanced methods and computer power has facilitated sub-continental analysis of Holocene pollen data. This paper presents results of one such study, focussing on the Mediterranean basin. Pollen data from 105 fossil sequences have been extracted from the European Pollen database, harmonised by both taxonomy and chronologies, and subjected to a hierarchical agglomerative clustering method to synthesise the dataset into 16 main groupings. A particular focus of analysis was to describe the common transitions from one group to another to understand pathways of Holocene vegetation change in the Mediterranean. Two pollen-based indices of human impact (OJC: Oleaceae, Juglans, Castanea; API: anthropogenic pollen indicators) have been used to infer the degree of human modification of vegetation within each pollen grouping. Pollen-inferred cluster groups that are interpreted as representing more natural vegetation states show a restricted number of pathways of change. A set of cluster groups were identified that closely resemble anthropogenically-disturbed vegetation, and might be considered anthromes (anthopogenic biomes). These clusters show a very wide set of potential pathways, implying that all potential vegetation communities identified through this analysis have been altered in response to land exploitation and transformation by human societies in combination with other factors, such as climatic change. Future work to explain these ecosystem pathways will require developing complementary datasets from the social sciences and humanities (archaeology and historical sources), along with synthesis of the climatic records from the region.


Pollen Classification Cluster analysis Mediterranean Holocene Change analysis 



This research is funded by the Leverhulme Trust. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the von Post centennial symposium in Stockholm in November 2016 and the International Pollen Congress in Brazil in 2016, and constructive comments from Thomas Giesecke and John Birks were particularly valuable in shaping the analysis. This study is a contribution to the Past Global Changes (PAGES) project and its working group LandCover6k (, which in turn received support from the US National Science Foundation and the Swiss Academy of Sciences. LandCover6k is coordinated by Marie-José Gaillard (Linnaeus University, Kalmar, Sweden). We thank all contributors to the European Pollen Database and the two reviewers whose comments resulted in a much improved paper.


  1. Birks HJB (1996) Contributions of Quaternary palaeoecology to nature conservation. J Veget Sci 7:89–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Birks HJB, Lotter AF, Juggins S, Smol JP (2012) Tracking environmental change using lake sediments, vol 5. Data handling and numerical techniques, Springer, DordrechtCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Broström A, Nielsen AB, Gaillard M-J et al (2008) Pollen productivity estimates—the key to landscape reconstructions. Veget Hist Archaeoboty 17:461–478CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Butzer KW (2005) Environmental history in the Mediterranean world: cross-disciplinary investigation of cause-and-effect for degradation and soil erosion. J Archaeol Sci 32(12):1,773–1,800CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Collins PM, Davis BAS, Kaplan JO (2012) The mid-Holocene vegetation of the Mediterranean region and southern Europe, and comparison with the present day. J Biogeogr 39(1):1,848–1,861CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Davis BAS, Zanon M, Collins P et al (2013) The European modern pollen database (EMPD) project. Veget Hist Archaeobot 22:521–530CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Edwards KJ, Fyfe RM, Jackson ST (2017) The first 100 years of pollen analysis. Nat Plants 3.
  8. Ellis EC (2011) Anthropogenic transformation of the terrestrial biosphere. Philos Trans R Soc Lond A 369:1,010–1,035CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Ellis EC, Klein Goldewijk K, Siebert S, Lightman D, Ramankutty N (2010) Anthropogenic transformation of the biomes, 1700 to 2000. Glob Ecol Biogeogr 19:589–606Google Scholar
  10. Ellis EC, Ramankutty N (2008) Putting people in the map: anthropogenic biomes of the world. Frontiers in Ecol Environ 6:439–447CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Felde VA, Bjune AE, Grytnes JA, Birks HJB (2014) A comparison of novel and traditional numerical methods for the analysis of modern pollen assemblages from major vegetation–landform types. Rev Palaeobot Palynol 210:22–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Felde VA, Hooghiemstra H, Torres-Torres V, Birks JBH (2016) Detecting patterns of change in a long pollen-stratigraphic sequence from Funza, Colombia—a comparison of new and traditional numerical approaches. Rev Palaeobot Palynol 234:94–109CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Finsinger W, Giesecke T, Brewer S, Leydet M (2017) Emergence patterns of novelty in European vegetation assemblages over the past 15000 years. Ecol Lett 20:336–346CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Fyfe RM, de Beaulieu J-L, Binney H et al (2009) The European Pollen Database: past efforts and current activities. Veget Hist Archaeobot 18:417–424CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Fyfe RM, Roberts CN, Woodbridge J (2010) A pollen-based pseudo-biomisation approach to anthropogenic land cover change. Holocene 20:1,165–1,171CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Fyfe RM, Twiddle C, Sugita S et al (2013) The Holocene vegetation cover of Britain and Ireland: overcoming problems of scale and discerning patterns of openness. Quat Sci Rev 73:132–148CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Fyfe RM, Woodbridge J, Roberts CN (2015) From forest to farmland: pollen-inferred land cover change across Europe using the pseudobiomization approach. Glob Chang Biol 21(3):1,197–1,212CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Gaillard M-J, Birks HJB, Emanuelsson U, Karlsson S, Lagerås P, Olausson D (1994) Application of modern pollen/land-use relationships to the interpretation of pollen diagrams—reconstructions of land-use history in south Sweden, 3,000–0 bp. Rev Palaeobot Palynol 82:47–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Gaillard M-J, Sugita S, Mazier F et al (2010) Holocene land cover reconstructions for studies on land cover-climate feedbacks. Clim Past 6:483–499CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. García-Madrid AS, Molina JA, Cantó P (2014) Classification of habitats highlights priorities for conservation policies: the case of Spanish Mediterranean tall humid herb grasslands. J Nat Conserv 22:142–156CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Giesecke T, Davis B, Brewer B et al (2014) Towards mapping the late quaternary vegetation change of Europe. Veget Hist Archaeobot 23:75–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Grove AT, Rackham O (2003) The nature of Mediterranean Europe: an ecological history. Yale University Press, YaleGoogle Scholar
  23. Gu Z (2014) Circlize implements and enhances circular visualisation in R. Bioinformatics 30:2,811–2,812CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Hijmans RJ, Cameron SE, Parra JL, Jones PJ, Jarvis A (2005) Very high resolution interpolated climate surfaces for global land areas. Int J Climatol 25(1):1,965–1,978CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Huntley B (1990) European vegetation history: Palaeovegetation maps from pollen data-13000 year BP to present. J Quat Sci 5:103–122CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Izdebski A, Holmgren K, Weiberg E et al (2015) Realising consilience: how better communication between archaeologists, historians and natural scientists can transform the study of past climate change in the Mediterranean. Quat Sci Rev 136:5–22CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Jackson ST, Blois JL (2015) Community ecology in a changing environment: perspectives from the quaternary. Proc Natl Acad Sci 112(16):4,915–4,921CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Jahns S (1993) On the Holocene vegetation of the Argive Plain (Peloponnese, southern Greece). Veget Hist Archaeobot 2:187–203CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Kaniewski D, Paulissen E, De Laet V, Waelkens M (2008) Late Holocene fire impact and post-fire regeneration from the Bereket basin, Taurus Mountains, southwest Turkey. Quat Res 70:228–239CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Labuhn I, Finné M, Izdebski A, Roberts N, Woodbridge J (2017) Climatic changes and their impacts in the Mediterranean during the first millennium CE. Late Antique ArchaeologyGoogle Scholar
  31. Leydet M (2007–2017) The European Pollen Database. Accessed 26 May 2016
  32. Marquer L, Gaillard M-J, Sugita S et al (2014) Holocene changes in vegetation composition in northern Europe: why pollen-based quantitative reconstructions matter? Quat Sci Rev 90:199–216CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Mercuri AM, Bandini Mazzanti M, Florenzano A, Montecchi MC, Rattighieri E (2013a) Olea, Juglans and Castanea: the OJC group as pollen evidence of the development of human-induced environments in the Italian peninsula. Quat Int 303:24–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Mercuri AM, Mazzanti M, Florenzano A, Montecchi MC, Rattighieri E, Torri P (2013b) Anthropogenic pollen indicators (API) from archaeological sites as local evidence of human-induced environments in the Italian peninsula. Annali Di Botanica 3:143–153Google Scholar
  35. Morales-Molino C, García-Antón M, Postigo-Mijarra JM, Morla C (2013) Holocene vegetation, fire and climate interactions on the westernmost fringe of the Mediterranean Basin. Quat Sci Rev 59:5–17CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Murtagh F, Legendre P (2014) Ward’s hierarchical agglomerative clustering method: which algorithms implement Ward’s criterion? J Classif 31:274–295CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Oksanen J, Blanchet FG, Friendly M et al (2016) Vegan: Community Ecology Package. R package version 2.4–2.
  38. Ozendaa P, Borela JL (2000) An ecological map of Europe: why and how? Ecology 323:983–994Google Scholar
  39. Perring MP, Ellis EC (2013) The extent of novel ecosystems: long in time and broad in space. In: Hobbs J, Higgs ES, Hall CM (eds) Novel ecosystems: Intervening in the new ecological world order. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, pp 66–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Prentice C, Guiot J, Huntley B, Jolly D, Cheddadi R (1996) Reconstructing biomes from palaeoecological data: a general method and its application to European pollen data at 0 and 6 ka. Clim Dyn 12:185–194CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Prentice IC, Jolly D, BIOME 6000 Participants (2000) Mid-Holocene and glacial-maximum vegetation geography of the northern continents and Africa. J Biogeogr 27:507–519CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Radeloff VC, Williams JW, Bateman BL et al (2015) The rise of novelty in ecosystems. Ecol Appl 25:2,051–2,068CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Roberts N (2013) The Holocene: an environmental history. Wiley, LondonGoogle Scholar
  44. Roberts N, Stevenson T, Davis B, Cheddadi R, Brewster S, Rosen A (2004) Holocene climate, environment and cultural change in the circum-Mediterranean region. In: Batterby RW, Gasse F, Stickley CE (eds) Past climate variability through Europe and Africa. Springer, Netherlands, pp 343–362CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Ruddiman W, Fuller D, Kaplan J et al (2016) Late Holocene climate: natural or anthropogenic? Rev Geophys 54:93–118CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Stedingk H, Fyfe RM, Allard A (2008) Pollen productivity estimates for the reconstruction of past vegetation at the forest-tundra ecotone. Holocene 18:323–332CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Sugita S (2007a) Theory of quantitative reconstruction of vegetation I: pollen from large sites reveals regional vegetation composition. Holocene 17:229–241CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Sugita S (2007b) Theory of quantitative reconstruction of vegetation II: all you need is LOVE. Holocene 17:243–257CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Trondman A-K, Gaillard M-J, Sugita S et al (2015) Pollen-based land-cover reconstructions for the study of past vegetation-climate interactions in NW Europe at 0.2 k, 0.5 k, 3 k and 6 k years before present. Glob Chang Biol 21:676–697CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Tzedakis PC (2007) Seven ambiguities in the Mediterranean palaeoenvironmental narrative. Quat Sci Rev 26:2,042–2,066CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Vannière B, Colombaroli D, Roberts N (2010) A fire paradox in ecosystems around the Mediterranean. PAGES News 18:63–65CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Von Post L (1946) The prospect for pollen analysis in the study of the earth’s climatic history. New Phytol 45:193–193CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Walker D (1970) Direction and rate of change of some British post-glacial hydroseres. In: Walker D, West RG (eds) Studies in the vegetation history of the British Isles. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 117–139Google Scholar
  54. Walker MJC, Berkelhammer M, Björck S, Cwynar LC, Fisher DA, Long AJ (2012) Formal subdivision of the Holocene Series/Epoch: a discussion paper by a working Group of INTIMATE (integration of ice-core, marine and terrestrial records) and the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy (International Commission on Stratigraphy). J Quat Sci 27:649–659CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Ward JH (1963) Hierarchical grouping to optimize an objective function. J Am Stat Assoc 58:236–244CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Williams M, Zalasiewicz J, Haff PK, Schwägerl C, Barnosky AD, Ellis EC (2015) The ANTHROPOCENE biosphere. Anthropocene Rev 2:196–219CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Woodbridge J, Fyfe RM, Roberts N (2014) A comparison of remotely-sensed and pollen-based approaches to mapping Europe’s land cover. J Biogeogr 41:2,080–2,092CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Woodbridge J, Roberts N, Fyfe RM (2017) Perpetual change? Holocene vegetation and land cover dynamics in the Mediterranean from pollen data. J BiogeogrGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ralph M. Fyfe
    • 1
    Email author
  • Jessie Woodbridge
    • 1
  • C. Neil Roberts
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Geography, Earth and Environmental SciencesUniversity of PlymouthPlymouthUK

Personalised recommendations