> FocusUnimore > numero 18 – settembre 2021

Humanity is currently experiencing the consequences of rapid and deep social and climate changes. Scientific research is crucial to understand the magnitude, genesis, and evolution of such changes to offer mitigation and adaptation tools. In this sense, the study of past climates and cultural changes through palaeoenvironmental and archaeological techniques allow us to gather key lesson from the past to apply in present and future societal challenges facing global climate change.      

Mediterranean agro-sylvo-pastoral landscapes are at the focus of crucial environmental and social issues linked to mosaic landscape development. Islands throw light on long-term dynamics by amplifying geographical and cultural elements. The Balearic Islands are crucial for the study of these interactions during the Holocene due to their late human colonisation (about 4,500 years ago) compared to other Mediterranean islands such as Sardinia or Corsica.

The EU-funded OLEA project aims to focus on the drivers and timing of the spread of wild olive macchia and the onset of olive groves cultivation as a central feature of the current Balearic landscape. This Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowships (MSCA-IF) is carried out by Dr Gabriel Servera-Vives (Mallorca, 1983), hosted at the UNIMORE’s Department of Life Sciences – Laboratory of Palynology and Palaeobotany (LPP) – supervised by Prof Anna Maria Mercuri and co-coordinated by Dr Assunta Florenzano from the UNIMORE. As an islander, Dr Servera-Vives is highly motivated to disentangle how past societies modified and adapted to their environment. Indeed, islands are worldwide considered as prone laboratories for the understanding of social and environmental changes.

But how can researcher gather information about past landscape, climate, and human activities? They count on a highly versatile discipline called palynology, consisting of the study of pollen grains and spores. This discipline relies on a simple but powerful statement: every plant species produces a specific pollen type, and this pollen is almost eternally-resistant. So, the researchers can identify these pollen types by using a light microscope and then interpret landscape changes, inferring climate and human causality. One of the main objectives of a MSCA-IF is to gain new skills in an excellence cross-border context. The LPP offer to Dr Servera-Vives an excellent context to grow up as a palynologist and as a researcher. This laboratory, directed by Prof Mercuri, has a wide experience on Mediterranean cultural landscapes and its pioneering research is highly appreciated by international researchers as shown by plenty of publications on top-ranked international journals such as Nature and PNAS.      

The OLEA-project is now on the equator of its duration and is starting to obtain the first results that will soon be published. Although the project is mainly focused on pollen analysis, it also benefits from other collaborations as for instance with the ArqueoUIB research group from the University of the Balearic Islands specialized in archaeology and Dr Grant Snitker from the USDA Forest Service (USA) specialist in fire history. Undeniably, landscape is a very complex matter, therefore landscape research can certainly take advantage of interdisciplinarity. OLEA will combine high-resolution studies of coastal lagoon cores and archaeological sites. This integrated approach combining human and natural sites offer the possibility to compare natural regional dynamics and local human land-use through time. In doing so, main methods used are pollen morphology, multi-proxy analysis, fire history and agent-based modelling. This work will further our scientific knowledge of mosaic landscape formation in the Mediterranean. Moreover, OLEA wants to give insights on how humans transform the environment and faced societal and climate challenges throughout history.

Finally, the received EU-funding through the MSCA-IF program to OLEA-project recognises the importance of long-term integrated research to further understand past and present climate changes. To do that, we need from interdisciplinarity (e.g., palynology, archaeology, fire history, etc.) to deal with conservation issues, propose accurate predictions and mitigation plans to minimise the effects of climate changes on our environment and society.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska -Curie grant agreement No 895735.

Further information: https://www.olea.unimore.it/  (web) and @Olea-Project (twitter)

The Laboratory of Palynology and Palaeobotany in UNIMORE

The laboratory of Modena is a university centre of research and teaching of Palynology, Archaeobotany and Botany. Since the first steps, starting in 1981, the research has been carried out in different fields with an interdisciplinary perspective combining biological sciences with geology, aerobiology, and archaeology. Archaeobotany is currently the focus of its activity on Bronze age studies, Roman and Mediaeval archaeological sites of (northern to southern) Italy, Sahara, and Kurdistan. Main topics under investigation are past climate oscillations and environmental transformations, cultural landscapes, and the role of plants in cultural evolution from the Lateglacial to the present in the Mediterranean region. Modena proposed and coordinated the EU-Culture 2000 project PaCE  (“Plants and Culture: roots of a cultural heritage of Europe”) with the main idea of creating an interdisciplinary cooperation on the scientific and humanistic cultural heritage of Europe, based on the links among Plants and Culture.

The LPP at a glance:

– Study of past and present environmental records from Mediterranean sites

– Analyses of microscopical (pollen, NPPs) and macroscopical (seeds/fruits, often also woods/charcoals)

– The laboratory is fully equipped with high-quality research microscopes for pollen (5 optical microscopes with transmitted light) and macroremains analyses (3 stereomicroscopes)

– Reference pollen collection with more than 10,000 slides

– Reference seed collection with more than 2,000 Mediterranean species

Mediterranean mosaic landscape research in the Balearics as cultural and climate laboratories. An EU-funded H2020-MSCA individual fellowship project in Unimore