Neolithic scholars issue stark warning on Malta’s environmental future

Malta’s vegetation may have changed more in past decade than in the previous 9,000 years, scholars say in stark warning on Malta’s environmental threat after documenting the islanders’ ‘resourcefulness’ in survival in a small arid island

The goal of the FRAGSUS Project was to understand the economic and technological means that sustained an ancient culture in such a small island context
The goal of the FRAGSUS Project was to understand the economic and technological means that sustained an ancient culture in such a small island context

“It is ironic that the Maltese vegetation, which for 9,000 years has survived almost unchanged despite everything that the environment, people and their animals could do to it, has perhaps changed more during the lifetime of the FRAGSUS Project (carried over the past decade) which was set up to study the resilience of this island environment”.

So goes one of the scholarly observations made by Chris O. Hunt in a new book, published as part of the FRAGSUS Project (Fragility and sustainability in small island environments: adaptation, cultural change and collapse in prehistory), and authored by a number researchers from different disciplines led by Caroline Malone.

Documenting the environmental history of prehistoric Malta, in his conclusions Hunt says Maltese vegetation survived many notable natural events such as storms, tsunamis, floods, severe and long-lived droughts, and human activities, including clearance for agriculture and construction and the impacts of grazing animals.

Hunt contrasts this resilience to the “rapid, catastrophic change in the modern landscape, which is currently being over-run by introduced eucalypts, wattles and cape violet, which have no local natural competitors and thus flourish unchecked and by construction.”

In another contribution, scholar Jeremy Bennett warns that “continuing rampant development may lead to a much greater anthropic erasure of the agrarian landscape, well before any widespread environmental collapse takes place.”

The publication also offers a glimmer of hope referring to the “remarkable resilience of the Maltese soil and vegetation”, as well as the adaptations by the Neolithic communities to harness the islands’ productivity in the face of “climatic change and inexorable soil erosion”.

The goal of the FRAGSUS Project was to understand the economic and technological means that sustained an ancient culture in such a small island context.

But it also ominously documents the collapse of Neolithic civilization in a context marked by soil erosion and over-exploitation of natural resources.

FRAGSUS drew on multiple tools to find some answers as to how Neolithic civilisation collapsed. These included analysis of pollen grains using chemical signatures imprinted by the surrounding environment, to understand what nutrients the parent plants were absorbing from the ground.

Molluscs embedded in the soil also offered glimpses of the landscape changes. Other specialists assessed the wear and tear on tens of thousands of human bones from a burial site to understand the islanders’ lifestyles.

The analysis offers several clues on the risks of over exploiting Malta’s natural resources. In fact the authors expressly state that their “hope has been to see patterns in the past that inform us in the present, and perhaps influence human behaviours in the future, enabling conservation and protection of vulnerable environments.”

The study does point at previous periods of dramatic change in the Maltese landscape.

The people arriving to Malta with grazing animals 8,000 years ago burnt much of the natural vegetation around their settlements like scrub at Burmarrad and open pine- juniper scrub woodland at Marsa. Cultivation, grazing, burning and drought caused severe soil erosion, particularly around Marsa, the Burmarrad Plain and Xemxija.

The studies show that animal grazing became more intensive peaking around 7,000 years ago, as did cereal cultivation, suggesting “a relatively high population engaged in both arable and pastoral farming”.

Despite the society’s strength and success during the Neolithic, as centuries passed the soil erosion and climate conditions worsened, as evidenced by the different types of pollen in the soil, the diminishing number of tree remains, and the human bones wracked with evidence of dietary deficiencies.

A decisive blow may have been an unknown catastrophe that occurred around 2350 BC, a period during which, according to tree ring analysis, the whole region suffered a catastrophic climate event—possibly a dust cloud caused by a volcanic eruption.

One important lesson singled out by the authors of the book is that “human over-exploitation of natural resources in fragile environments invariably results in episodes of quite dramatic retrenchment, and even complete collapse.”

It could therefore be postulated that the notable cultural change between the Temple Period and the Bronze Age was partly influenced by the degrading agricultural landscape. “Through time, the population may have dropped through lower birth rates and out-migration, even if complete abandonment did not occur. In this way sustainability gave way to fragility.”

The adoption of agricultural terracing in later times helped preserve the fragile status quo. Adaptation continues into the present day with the continued population increase of the Maltese islands now being sustained by greater “connectivity and political integration within wider structures including the European Union”, as well as by “banking, gambling, uncertain sources of money and inward investment, education, tourists and tax exiles.”

But such influxes of money have led to increased values of buildings and land which today “lie at the heart of Maltese identity”, summed up in the saying ‘mingħajr art u ħamrija, m’hemmx sinjorija’ (‘without land and soil, there is no wealth’.)

Ultimately, as the authors note from the FRAGSUS conclusions, Malta is a land that has been continuously under pressure, “but where human capital has been increased in capacity by a sequence of different strategies and devices of social resilience in interplay with changing levels of connectivity.”

The authors of the book include Charles French, Chris O. Hunt, Michelle Farrell, Katrin Fenech, Rowan McLaughlin, Reuben Grima, Nicholas C. Vella, Patrick J. Schembri, Simon Stoddart and Caroline Malone.