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Medieval Europeans and their Aquatic Ecosystems
By Richard Hoffmann
Beiträge zum Göttinger Umwelthistorischen Kolloquium 2007-2008, ed. Bernd Herrmann (Göttingen: Universitätsverlag, 2008)
Introduction: Some hundred kilometres into the eastern Mediterranean from continental Asia Minor, the island of Cyprus was inaccessible to early humans. They first reached it during the Neolithic after about 6000 BCE. Fish bones in garbage pits from the oldest villages show fishes caught from an unexploited population, with abundant specimens of large size and great age. So clear an indicator of an ‘old growth’ aquatic system is most unusual in the archaeological record, paralleled only by the big old cod first taken from the Newfoundland banks in the sixteenth century CE. There followed a period of intense exploitation during which very large specimens of certain species become rare in the catch. This is notably true of inshore taxa such as sea breams (Sparidae) and groupers (Serranidae), but not so for large pelagic mackerels and tunas (Scombridae).
It is not the place of a historian to tell scientists what it means for biomass to shift from few large, long-lived individuals to more numerous smaller ones. The story which Jean Desse and Natalie Desse-Berset have reconstructed for neolithic Cyprus serves rather as a quick illustration of my thesis, namely that long-term change is the norm, at least for systems with a human component, and many inshore or shelf systems have been used and thus impacted by humans for millennia. This essay aims to tell in particular how the growth of an advanced preindustrial society and economy in Europe some thousand to five hundred years ago affected fish species and aquatic ecosystems.
The historical discipline and the ‘new ecology’ converge around the nature and forces of change. Yet it remains true that our historical sciences (history, archaeology, historical linguistics; historical branches of some natural sciences) are incapable of directly observing the particular past phenomena which are our objects of interest. All must rather reconstruct pasts from their surviving traces, material or verbal. That is to say, it is ‘found’ or recognized evidence and not intentionally created observation which forms the historical record. Read critically – meaning with awareness of the contexts which created and preserved each element –, that record permits inferences about processes of change, be they in religious beliefs, fish-catching techniques, or in the dynamics of the environment at a particular time and place.