Crossing the thresholds: human ecology and historical patterns of landscape degradation


Simpson I, Dugmore AJ, Thomson AM & Vésteinsson O (2001) Crossing the thresholds: human ecology and historical patterns of landscape degradation. CATENA, 42 (2-4), pp. 175-192.

In discussions of landscape sensitivity, human activities have generally been regarded as external forces contributing to landscape change, with a focus on the impacts of cultivation methods, fertiliser practices, grazing pressures and atmospheric pollution. However, there has been comparatively little study undertaken that integrates physical and social systems in a historic context to explain the basis of human activity in sensitive landscapes. Where such attempts have been made, the manner of common land management has figured prominently, with ‘tragedy of the commons' concepts used to explain land degradation and to provide a foundation for policy response. This has also been the case in Southern Iceland and in this paper we assess the extent to which common land domestic grazing pressures were the primary external force causing soil erosion and land degradation during the period of occupation from ca. 874 AD. We first provide field observation of soil erosion, temporally defined by tephrochronology, to highlight the extent of land degradation during this period. The ‘tragedy of the commons' explanation of degradation is then assessed by evaluating historic documentary sources, and by environmental reconstruction and modeling of historic grazing pressures. These analyses indicate that regulatory mechanisms were in place to prevent overgrazing from at least the 1200s AD and suggest that there was sufficient biomass to support the numbers of domestic livestock indicated from historic sources. We suggest that failure to remove domestic livestock before the end of the growing season and an absence of shepherding were more likely to contribute to land degradation than absolute numbers. Lack of appropriate regulation of domestic livestock on common grazing areas can be attributed to limited cultural knowledge of changing and rapidly fluctuating environmental conditions.

Historical ecology; Andisols; Soil erosion; Tephrochronology; Common land; Grazing; Cultural knowledge

CATENA: Volume 42, Issue 2-4

Publication date31/01/2001