Nomads thrived in Greece after the collapse of the Roman Empire

Analysis of pollen in sediment cores from a large lake in Greece shows that nomadic livestock herders took over the region after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.

An analysis of pollen from Lake Volvi in Greece has unexpectedly revealed that nomads thrived in this region for centuries after the chaos unleashed by the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Pollen records show the landscape was dominated by pasture animals, suggesting the presence of nomadic herders

Adam Izdebski at the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology in Germany and his colleagues were studying sediment cores from the lake as part of a larger study. As lake sediments build up, changes in the abundance of various kinds of pollen in the sediment layers can record how nearby vegetation changed over time.

In some other places around the Mediterranean, the team has found signs of reforestation after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire around AD 476. But at Lake Volvi, from around AD 540, the team found less tree pollen but more pollen from plants associated with nomadic livestock herders.

“We have this moment when the Roman agriculture disappears almost completely due to plague, climate change and warfare, but you don’t get reforestation – you actually get less forest very quickly,” says Izdebski.

“The landscape was dominated by pasture animals even in the high mountain areas. This was a complete shift from how the Romans farmed the lowlands for several hundred years.”

This means those earlier farmers moved away, died or adopted a nomadic lifestyle, he says.

Greece was nominally under the control of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire around at the time of this shift. It is known that the region was raided by Bulgar nomads around AD 540, but it wasn’t known that nomads lived in this region for several centuries.

The only historical information that correlates with the team’s findings is an account of a Byzantine emperor being ambushed by Bulgar nomads around AD 700.

“It seems that there was a local society that didn’t want any emperor to be around,” says Izdebski, who presented the findings at the meeting of the European Geosciences Union in Vienna, Austria, last month.

Around AD 850, the Byzantine Empire reasserted control and the signs of nomads disappear. Instead, there was reforestation.

The findings provide rare evidence of the presence of nomadic peoples at a particular place and time, says Izdebski. “We know very little about their history because the states were not interested in recording them.”

Historians didn’t write about nomadic peoples as they weren’t part of the elites, he says. And because nomads were difficult to tax, there are no tax records either – tax records can be a rich source of information about past populations.


European Geosciences Union meeting 2024 DOI: 10.5194/egusphere-egu24-20730

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