Neolithic arrowhead found high in the Alps

"This research shows that people, as well as climate, did have a role in shaping the Alpine landscape from as early as the Mesolithic period," says Kevin Walsh. (Credit: K Walsh/University of York)

Excavations in the high altitudes of the French Alps offer evidence of human occupation dating back 8,000 years.

The 14-year study in the Parc National des Écrins in the southern Alps is one of the most detailed archaeological investigations carried out at high altitudes.

The work included the excavation of a series of stone animal enclosures and human dwellings considered some of most complex high altitude Bronze Age structures found anywhere in the Alps.

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The study uncovered evidence of Stone Age hunting camps in often inhospitable conditions in the upper reaches of the Alpine tree line at 2,000 meters (6,560 feet) and above. Other finds included a Neolithic flint arrowhead at 2,475 meters (8,120 feet), thought to be the highest altitude arrowhead discovered in the Alps.

A team of British and French scientists carried out the study and published their findings in the journal Quaternary International. They surveyed over 300 sites across a number of valleys as well as studying pollen from cores taken from peat areas and lakes and carbonized wood remains

“High altitude landscapes of 2,000 meters and above are considered remote and marginal. Many researchers had assumed that early societies showed little interest in these areas,” says Kevin Walsh, landscape archaeologist at the University of York.

“This research shows that people, as well as climate, did have a role in shaping the Alpine landscape from as early as the Mesolithic period.

“It has radically altered our understanding of activity in the sub-alpine and alpine zones. It is also of profound relevance for the broader understanding of human-environment interactions in ecologically sensitive environments.”

Hunting grounds and pastures

Excavations carried out by the team showed human activity shaped the Alpine landscape through the Bronze, Iron, Roman, and Medieval ages as people progressed from hunting to more managed agricultural systems including the movement of livestock to seasonal alpine pastures, known as transhumant-pastoralism.

“The most interesting period is the Chalcolithic/Bronze Age when human activity, particularly to support pastoralism, really begins to dominate the landscape,” says Walsh. “The Bronze Age buildings we studied revealed the clear development of seasonal pastoralism that appears to have been sustained over many centuries with new enclosures added and evidence of tree clearing to create new grazing land.

“The evidence suggests the landscape was occupied over many centuries marking the start of a more sustained management of the alpine landscape and the development of the pastoral agricultural systems we see in the Alps today.”

Initial fieldwork for the project started in 1998 followed by a series of further fieldwork expeditions into some of the most remote and spectacular landscapes in the national park.

“The nature of these landscapes and the fact that no-one had ever carried out fieldwork in these areas meant that we had to carry out numerous phases of work involving long treks over difficult ground and sometimes in challenging weather,” adds Walsh.

“The result of this work is that only now do we have a clear understanding of how these remote, beautiful areas were exploited by people over the millennia.”

The research is the result of collaboration between the Department of Archaeology at the University of York; The Centre Camille Jullian UMR 7299 CNRS/Aix-Marseille Université; L’Institut Méditerranéen de Biodiversité et D’Ecologie marine et continentale, the Regional Archaeology Service (Provence, Alpes-Cote-d’Azur), and the Ecrins National Park.

Source: University of York