Pollen points to capitalism in ancient Greece

Pollen points to capitalism in ancient Greece

The next time your spring allergies start acting up, don’t be too cross with the pollen causing them, because hundreds of years from now, it may provide palynology scientists and researchers with valuable clues about the vegetation around you and the changes that the landscape has undergone.

The history of the environment is also intrinsically linked to the history of mankind, and a new study published in The Economic Journal (Oxford University Press) tells us of the existence of an export-oriented market economy in Archaic and Classical Greece that specialized in olive oil and wine.

The paper “Landscape Change and Trade in Ancient Greece: Evidence from Pollen Data” is the result of an interdisciplinary study by an international team of five researchers who examined 115 pollen assemblages dating between 1000-600 BC from six locations in southern Greece. Combining methods from the fields of paleobotany, economics and environmental history, the team found that changes seen in the pollen of cereals, olive trees and grape vines point to the emergence of a market economy long before Roman times. 

“The major finding of this article is that not only do we see inter-regional trade in Archaic Greece – even before Pericles – but also very deep market integration between different regions,” the head of the research team, Adam Izdebski, a historian and researcher with the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, and the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, told Kathimerini recently. 

“It is not only that we have trade but also the economies of specific regions adjusting to market integration. Using landscape change data, we saw that despite the demographic growth that we know from archaeology, there was a decrease in cereal cultivation but also a very strong increase in vine and olive cultivation,” he adds.

Why were farmers growing more grapes and olives instead of cereals that would help feed a growing population? The palynological study – the study of pollen remains extracted from cored sediments – led the researchers to surmise that the people of southern Greece exported olive oil and wine – two products that were easy to produce in its dry and warm climate – to colonies on the Black Sea from which they imported grain.

“These colonies provided a kind of platform that allowed this trade and then market integration. At the same time, they created demand for olive oil and wine from Greece for the colonists, but they also spread a kind of cultural trend,” says Izdebski.

The study’s findings challenge the prevalent view that the integrated market economy is a more recent phenomenon. Archaeological findings and written sources have confirmed the existence of markets in ancient times, but supply and demand mechanisms and the adaptation of production and supply are thought to have emerged after the 15th century. Yet the pollen studied by the research team indicated that wine and olive oil had what economists call “comparative advantages.” 

Why pollen? “Plant pollen is the most durable fossil and concentrations illustrate the history of vegetation and the evolution of the natural landscape,” explains Katerina Kouli, an associate professor of paleobotany at the University of Athens and one of the research team’s five members. She adds that pollen can remain well preserved for millions of years and provide valuable information about an area’s flora and climatic changes over the course of the centuries.

The assemblages used for the study came from sediment cores extracted from six sites in southern Greece listed on the European Pollen Database. Kouli processed the cores from Brauron (Vravronas) and Eleusis (Elefsina) and explains that every centimeter of sediment captures a moment in time. “The historical references we have on trade in ancient times do not include constant and comprehensive quantitative data, so pollen acts like a journal of nature,” she says.

Researchers studying pollen can extract quantitative data on vegetation, cultivations and land use, while the innovation of the study on ancient Greece, says Kouli, was the combination of such paleo-data with modern mathematical and economic models. Instead of focusing on the history of individual areas, this allowed the scientists to explore the broader “trend” across southern Greece.

To confirm the precision of their methods, they compared the trends that emerged from the pollen examination with three other sets of data: on the number of settlements as a population index, shipwrecks in the Mediterranean in order to assess the objectives of maritime trade and overall economic activity, as well as the large number of olive mills and presses in the Mediterranean.

So, what does the existence of an ancient “capitalist” system mean for us today? For Izdebski, the study revealed that the creation of an integrated market system appears to be an “organic process.”

“Market integration seems to be some kind of self-emerging process. When you have incentives and the structures, the institutions that allow for really large-scale exchange and interdependence – like we had with the Greek colonies in the Black Sea – you become ready, willing to depend on others for important things like food and you begin to specialize. What we show on a more general level is that you don’t need the modern European institutions that you started having with banking in the 16th century but it can actually emerge earlier,” he says.

“This deep, very strong market integration, which is a precondition for capitalism that developed in the 19th and 20th century, emerged by itself. It shows that human societies have this tendency,” says Izdebski.

“The message is that if we are going to cope with the consequences of capitalism, with the global crises of the pandemic, of climate change and of biodiversity loss, we should not just go for very quick fixes and just believe that technology will solve everything. But it is ingrained, in human nature, so we should think very deeply how we should change our values, our patterns of behavior, to develop economies and market integration in a way that is sustainable,” he adds.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.