Vegetation change, goats, and religion: a 2000-year history of land use in southern Morocco



Publication Details

McGregor, H. V., Dupont, L., Stuut, J. W. & Kuhlmann, H. (2009). Vegetation change, goats, and religion: a 2000-year history of land use in southern Morocco. Quaternary Science Reviews, 28 (15-16), 1434-1448.


Understanding past human–climate–environment interactions is essential for assessing the vulnerability of landscapes and ecosystems to future climate change. This is particularly important in southern Morocco where the current vegetation is impacted by pastoralism, and the region is highly sensitive to climate variability. Here, we present a 2000-year record of vegetation, sedimentation rate, XRF chemical element intensities, and particle size from two decadal-resolved, marine sediment cores, raised from offshore Cape Ghir, southern Morocco. The results show that between 650 and 850 AD the sedimentation rate increased dramatically from 100 cm/1000 years to 300 cm/1000 years, and the Fe/Ca and pollen flux doubled, together indicating higher inputs of terrestrial sediment. Particle size measurements and end-member modelling suggest increased fluvial transport of the sediment. Beginning at 650 AD pollen levels from Cichorioideae species show a sharp rise from 10% to 20%. Pollen from Atemisia and Plantago, also increase from this time. Deciduous oak pollen percentages show a decline, whereas those of evergreen oak barely change. The abrupt increase in terrestrial/fluvial input from 650 to 850 AD occurs, within the age uncertainty, of the arrival of Islam (Islamisation) in Morocco at around 700 AD. Historical evidence suggests Islamisation led to population increase and development of southern Morocco, including expanded pastoralism, deforestation and agriculture. Livestock pressure may have changed the vegetation structure, accounting for the increase in pollen from Cichorioideae, Plantago, and Artemisia, which include many weedy species. Goats in particular may have played a dominant role as agents of erosion, and intense browsing may have led to the decline in deciduous oak; evergreen oak is more likely to survive as it re-sprouts more vigorously after browsing. From 850 AD to present sedimentation rates, Fe/Ca ratios and fluvial discharge remain stable, whereas pollen results suggest continued degradation. Pollen results from the past 150 years suggest expanded cultivation of olives and the native argan tree, and the introduction of Australian eucalyptus trees. The rapidly increasing population in southern Morocco is causing continued pressure to expand pastoralism and agriculture. The history of land degradation presented here suggests that the vegetation in southern Morocco may have been degraded for a longer period than previously thought and may be particularly sensitive to further land use changes. These results should be included in land management strategies for southern Morocco.

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