A new interdisciplinary study indicates agricultural market integration centuries before Roman conquest, suggesting the mechanisms that led to the Anthropocene began much earlier than assumed


By analyzing sediment cores from southern Greece, an international team of researchers identified trends in cereal, olive, and vine pollen indicating structural changes in agricultural production between 1000 BCE and 600 CE. In a study published by The Economic Journal, the researchers combine varying fields of scientific research to provide evidence for a market economy in ancient Greece characterized by integrated agricultural production and a major expansion of trade.


In the field of economics, the concept of a market economy is largely considered a modern phenomenon. Influential economists, such as Karl Marx and Max Weber, argued that, although markets existed in antiquity, economies in which structures of production and distribution responded to the laws of supply and demand developed only as recently as the 19th century. A recent study by an international team of researchers, including Dr Katerina Kouli, Associate Professor in the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, uses palynology –the study of pollen remains extracted from sediment deposits– to challenge this belief and provide evidence for an integrated market economy existing in ancient Greece.


Market integration began earlier than assumed

Using data from the European Pollen Database, as well as data from other investigators, researchers analyzed pollen assemblages from 115 samples taken from six sites in southern Greece to measure landscape change. Using radiocarbon dating to tie their measurements to historical time, researchers followed the change in percentage values for individual plant taxa between 1000 BCE and 600 CE and observed a decrease in pollen from cereals, a staple of the ancient Greek diet, during a period of apparent population growth. This decrease occurred at the same time as an increase in the proportion of olive and vine pollen. These trends raise an important question: why would local producers chose to plant olives and vines instead of cereal grains, when the demand for this staple food must have been high and mounting?

In the current study, researchers argue that pollen data from southern Greece reveals an export economy based on cash cropping as early as the Archaic period, primarily through olive cultivation. Although archeological evidence from these periods documents the movement of goods, quantifiable data on market integration and structural changes in agricultural production have been very limited. This paper introduces pollen records as a new source of quantitative data in ancient economic history.


Interdisciplinary scientific approaches reveal an integrated ancient economy

Before arriving at their conclusions, researchers compared the trends they observed in the pollen data with three other sources of data: the evolution of the settlement numbers as population density indicator, Mediterranean shipwrecks used to estimate maritime trade and overall economic activity and the presence of large-scale oil and wine presses in the Mediterranean.


As the emergence of integrated markets and capitalist economies of the early modern era is believed to have been at the roots of the Anthropocene, the current epoch in which humanity has become a major geological force, the current study shows that the structural developments that occurred on a large scale through European colonization from the 15th century onward were possible several thousand years before.


Title: Landscape Change and Trade in Ancient Greece: Evidence from Pollen Data

Authors: Adam Izdebski, Tymon Słoczyński, Anton Bonnier, Grzegorz Koloch, Katerina Kouli

Publication: The Economic Journal, Volume 130, Issue 632, November 2020, Pages 2596–2618

DOI: 10.1093/ej/ueaa026