Despite the fact that Sierra Nevada is a Protected Natural area, due to its environmental and ecological richness, it is also a massif inhabited by human communities -since antiquity-, which have taken advantage of its resources to survive, leaving their tracks in the landscape.
The first issue arising to the observer is the fact that, traditionally, the main economic activity has been intensive irrigation agriculture. It is indeed a mountain range zone –including high mountainous landscape- where mineral resources are concentrated -although the most important production trend has not been mining, neither cattle raising. This fact does not imply that mining and livestock farming are not important activities together with land and forest utilization, but -under a historical framework-, they all have been relegated within the system resource utilization. Most of these activities have been lost during the second half of the 20th century, as modernization processes have been infiltrating, -as well as the crisis of the peasant way of life which has been dramatically transformed, losing part of its framework of logical thinking and the knowledge associated with it.
It is very complicated to distinguish among different activities, not only because of an excessively marked specialization as result of a social division of labour, but also because the most part of these activities are interconnected with production cycles that allow the use of the raw material and energy without any waste. There is no –by example- a spatial separation so obvious so it could be perceived a priori, despite the existence of zones of intensive irrigation or high mountain range zones. There are indeed zones exclusively dedicated to agricultural activities such as the Vega (local name for an alluvial plain, usually irrigated and intensively cultivated.), and other zones focused on livestock farming, such as the borreguiles or high mountain meadows. But even in these cases, there is a necessary interconnection, so we could talk about a perfect symbiosis among these activities, together with other uses of land and forest. These equilibria, nonetheless, were partially broken in moments of social rupture or crisis such as the feudal Castilian conquest, the confiscation during XIX century, or, more evidently, the current modernization processes.
Generically, we could say that cultivation zones are located from the range of 1.400 meters downwards. Above this level and reaching at least 2.000 meters, land was used between spring and summer to grow potato, beans, rye or barley. Numerous families would move from the nearest cortijos (local name designated to a farmhouse) during these seasons, although these activities were more restricted in the north slope of Sierra Nevada due to different climatic conditions. Livestock would be moved through an ascending route during the beginning of the spring and with more intensity, during summer. Animals –property of Alpujarra transhumant peasants practicing intermittent exploitation- would move by themselves looking for greener pastures from lower levels to Sierra Nevada peaks, during summertime. These same pastures were visited by foreign cattle from neighbour cities such as Guadix or Almería, but also from more distant places such as Córdoba o Jaén.
The complex traditional system of soil and water management, thermal gradient, isolation and humidity, vegetation and fauna, besides mining exploitation, has been the result of a long co-evolutionary process. The mountain range -and particularly the high mountain range-, has conditioned the ways of exploitation and adaptation to the environment, which are largely impacted by the different altitudinal levels with different vocations.
Forests in Sierra Nevada have been mainly cultivated areas, as noted by the presence of sweet chestnuts and the calves used to grow crops but also to create pasture zones indistinctly.
Within MEMOLA Project there are a number of experts from different disciplines working together. The Agronomy team of Cordoba University, along with the hydrology, botany and environment teams, will analyse the historical data collected during archaeological surveys focused on the study of archaeobotanical remains. Using all this information we will be able to arrive to more specific conclusions regarding the historical utilization of soil in Sierra Nevada.