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Keywords:

  • Holocene;
  • pastures;
  • meadows;
  • pollen analysis;
  • prehistory;
  • Middle Ages

Abstract

In terms of origin, grasslands in Central Europe can be classified into (i) natural grasslands, predetermined by environmental conditions and wild herbivores; (ii) seminatural grasslands, associated with long-term human activity from the beginning of agriculture during the Mesolithic–Neolithic transition; and (iii) improved (intensive) grasslands, a product of modern agriculture based on sown and highly productive forage grasses and legumes. This review discusses the origin, history and development of grasslands in Central Europe from the Holocene (9500 BC) to recent times, using archaeobotanical (pollen and macroremains), archaeozoological (molluscs, dung beetles, animal bones) and archaeological evidence, together with written and iconographic resources and recent analogies. An indicator of grasslands is the ratio of non-arboreal/arboreal pollen and the presence of pollen of species such as Plantago lanceolata and Urtica dioica in sediments. Pastures can be indicated by Juniperus communis pollen and charcoal present in sediments and the soil profile. Insect-pollinated species can be studied using cesspit sediments and pollen (from honey) in vessels in graves. In Central Europe, natural steppe, alluvial grasslands and alpine grasslands occurred before the start of agriculture in the early Neolithic (5500 BC); their area was small, and grassland patches were fragmentary in the forested landscape. Substantial enlargement of grasslands cannot be expected to have occurred before the late Bronze Age. The first scythes come from the 7th–6th century BC; therefore, hay meadows probably did not develop before this time. There is evidence of hay meadows in Central Europe during the Middle Ages, documented by macroremains of Arrhenatherum elatius in sediments, written records and long scythes in archaeological assemblages. Based on macroremains analyses, we conclude that there was generally high diversity of seminatural grasslands in the cultural landscape in the Middle Ages, and individual grassland communities were generally species rich. From the beginning of the agriculture until the 18th century, pastures and pasture forests were dominant sources of forage. Large-scale enlargement of hay meadows and decline of pastures in many regions occurred from the 18th century. Hay making is associated with enlargement of arable fields and the use of cattle as draught animals for ploughing and soil preparation. The spread of A. elatius in Central Europe was enabled by the decline of grazing management and an increased proportion of hay meadows in the 18th and 19th centuries. In some mountain areas, there are no records of large-scale deforestation and enlargement of grasslands until the 14th century, and the peak of the agriculturally used area was recorded for the period from the 18th to the first half of the 20th century. Grasslands were converted into arable land during periods of war; conversely, grasslands replaced arable land after the collapse of agriculture in many regions of former communist countries following political regime change in the 1990s. The dynamics of the grassland area reflect the development of human society and the political situation, because grasslands are an integral part of the cultural landscape in Central Europe.