The impact of environmental change on Palaeolithic and Mesolithic plant use and the transition to agriculture at Franchthi Cave, Greece

PLoS One. 2018 Nov 20;13(11):e0207805. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0207805. eCollection 2018.


The multi-period (~38,000-6000 cal BP) site of Franchthi Cave, located in the Argolid peninsula of southern mainland Greece, is unique in the Eastern Mediterranean for preserving a long archaeological sequence extending from the Upper Palaeolithic through to the end of the Neolithic period. In this paper, we present new anthracological (carbonized fuel wood waste) evidence from Franchthi Cave with which we reconstruct the changing ecology of woodland vegetation in its environs during the late Pleistocene and the early-mid Holocene. The integrated archaeobotanical record (charred wood and non-wood macro-remains) demonstrates that in the Lateglacial the now-submerged coastal shelf of the southern Argolid peninsula was covered by steppe grassland vegetation dominated by junipers, almonds, cereals and legumes. The rapid climatic amelioration that marked the start of the Holocene brought about the disappearance of juniper and the expansion of deciduous woodland, cereals and lentils. This woodland-grassland biome bears no analogues in the modern and historical vegetation ecology of the Aegean basin. Instead, it is directly comparable to the steppe woodland biomes exploited by late Pleistocene and early Holocene hunter-gatherers in Southwest Asia, and points to the convergent evolution of late Pleistocene and early Holocene plant exploitation strategies between the two regions. Continuous sea-level rise during the early Holocene led to the gradual extinction of this unique palaeohabitat, which acted as the catalyst for the selective introduction of domesticated cereal crops at Franchthi Cave in the early 9th millennium cal BP. Our meta-analysis of the non-wood archaeobotanical data puts into question the concept of the wholesale introduction of a crop "package" by pioneer settler groups arriving from the East. It is proposed instead that selective cereal crop introduction formed part of a complex pattern of sociocultural interactions that brought together indigenous and immigrant groups into new communities.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Agriculture*
  • Archaeology*
  • Caves*
  • Charcoal
  • Fossils
  • Greece
  • Internationality
  • Plants*


  • Charcoal

Grants and funding

Research for this paper was supported by sabbatical leave (2018) granted to EA by the School of Histories, Languages and Cultures (University of Liverpool) and a Senior Research Fellowship (2015-2016) granted to MN by the MH Wiener Laboratory for Archaeological Science (American School of Classical Studies at Athens). Quantitative analyses of FC wood and non-wood charred plant macrofossils were undertaken by CK with the support of the Leverhulme Trust (Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship, 2017-2020, grant no. ECF-2017-284). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.