Historical Works As Evidence Of Past Biomes & Ecosystems


Aug 19, 2003
Not sure where to post this, an erudite Mod may find an appropriate Thread.

Surveys commissioned by 16th century Spanish king provide unprecedented ecological snapshot​

Inventory of plants and animals could be used for modern conservation efforts​

In the 1570s, when King Philip II of Spain sent emissaries to survey the flora and fauna of villages in central and southern Spain, he wasn’t thinking about ecological networks or extinction. He just wanted to know exactly what he owned. So, he asked at least two people in each village to describe the land, flora, and fauna of their territory to his surveyors. Now, 450 years later, a team of ecologists says the resulting answers to that survey have value as ecological surveys, taken before the word “ecology” entered the lexicon.

Illustration 'Bears' from 'Livre de la Chasse

This 15th century drawing of bears in the wild represents what newly studied questionnaires reveal about the ecology, including the presence of brown bears, in historic Spain. GASTON PHEBUS © BIBLIOTHEQUE MAZARINE/© ARCHIVES CHARMET/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES

“I think it’s brilliant,” said Ana Rodrigues, a conservation biologist at the Center of Functional and Evolutionary Ecology in France who was not part of the research. “The survey was a historical document and now it becomes ecological data.”

The new work was done by Duarte Viana, an ecologist at the Doñana Biological Station (part of Spain’s National Research Council), and his colleagues. They used the answers to the king’s questionnaires and transcriptions from historians to create a list of plants, animals, and their respective ecological niches, providing an environmental snapshot of Castile, a large kingdom that was in modern-day central and southern Spain, from nearly 500 years ago. In their work, published recently in Ecology, they found various animals that lived and roamed across central Spain are now restricted to the north of Spain, whereas some plants that are abundant in the country now weren’t around in the 16th century.

Other similar inventories based on historical documents do exist, Viana says. For instance, researchers in 2018 gathered ecological information from 400 years ago using a 17th century natural history text from Scotland, but that text was also a science text, Viana explains, making his team’s work—using a document that was not an obvious work of science—unique.

Viana’s team chose to analyze questionnaires from 1574, 1575, and 1578. King Philip II had villagers in the kingdom answer questions about plants and animals, how people made a living, available natural resources such as wood, and social organization, including the number of households in a given village.

The locals, who may not have been literate, likely told their responses to the surveyors, who wrote them down in old Castilian. Then, early 20th century historians translated these responses into modern Spanish. Viana and his team mostly used these transcriptions to make sense of the old documents. ...



I knew the job was dangerous when I took it ...
Staff member
Jul 19, 2004
Out of Bounds
... Other similar inventories based on historical documents do exist, Viana says. For instance, researchers in 2018 gathered ecological information from 400 years ago using a 17th century natural history text from Scotland ...

The similarly relevant text noted here is Robert Sibbald's 1684 Scotia Illustrata. Here's the Royal Society article describing the work as a data source on past fauna. The full article and a PDF download are accessible at the link below.

Lee Raye (2018)
Robert Sibbald's Scotia Illustrata (1684): A faunal baseline for Britain
Notes Rec. 72: 383–405

This paper examines a pre-industrial Scottish natural history text by Robert Sibbald called Scotia Illustrata (Edinburgh, 1684), which is significant for two reasons: (i) it is based on data submitted by correspondents from across Scotland, and (ii) it only includes biological species attested to be present by witnesses or found in previous historical accounts of the country. These facts allow us to adopt a unique methodology: After its introduction, this paper approaches the text as a potential source of biodiversity information, and extracts data on the presence/absence of fauna in the seventeenth century. The extracted species are identified (as far as possible) to species level, and then the gathered information is used as a baseline to discuss later losses from the biodiversity of Scotland during the industrial period.

SOURCE / FULL ARTICLE / PDF DOWNLOAD: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsnr.2017.0042