Hazelnuts as environmental indicators

Hazelnuts laid in the sun Credit: pixabay, Maurizio La Cava

Guided by an unexpected ally – the humble hazelnut – archaeologists are rewriting the narrative of our prehistoric past.

Humans have been snacking on hazelnuts for over 12,000 years, relying on them as a vital source of energy. However, beyond their nutritional value, hazelnuts hold a secret key to our ancient landscapes.

Pioneering study

In a pioneering study led by University of Oxford, researchers published in Frontiers in Environmental Archaeology, a revolutionary method of reconstructing ancient woodlands was unveiled. 

Venturing beyond conventional archaeological methods, scientists decided to explore the world of hazelnuts. By utilising hazelnut shells, which have been present in northern and central European vegetation since the early Holocene, researchers are able to learn about the ancient people’s settlements and their impact on the environment.


Researchers analysed the stable carbon isotope value in hazelnut shells, simply by examining hazelnuts from varying light conditions across southern Sweden’s archaeological sites. This helped them study the “canopy effect” where plants in dense forests differ from those in open areas.

The study revealed a shift from closed to open environments over time, ranging from the Mesolithic to the Iron Age. Abundant hazelnut shells in early sites reveal detailed microhabitats, illuminating ancient life. Later, hazelnuts indicate woodland proximity, showing how humans interacted with landscapes over time. This method also complements traditional pollen analysis, offering richer insights into ancient ecosystems. And helps us understand how the environment changed over time and how human activities, like clearing forests or changing settlement patterns, may have influenced these changes.

Impact and Future Directions

The implications of this research extend far beyond academia. By understanding past environmental changes and human impacts, we are gaining crucial insights into sustainable land management practices today. Dr. Styring highlights the significance of carrying out additional research to expand the range of this pioneering technique, which will offer more comprehensive knowledge about ancient woodlands and landscapes.

In harnessing the power of hazelnuts, we can gain valuable insights to help solve environmental challenges both now and in the future.

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Written by

Eva Alvarez