The Azores Islands were populated at least a century and a half before their official colonization

In our latest paper published in Quaternary Science Reviews, we provide sound evidence for agriculture and livestock farming in the São Miguel Island by 1290, about a century and a half prior to its official settlement.

Caldera Sete Cidades, Sao Miguel Island

The most accepted date of human colonization of the Azores Islands is 1432, when Gonzalo Velho Cabral arrived at Santa Maria and took possession of the island in the name of the King of Portugal. Velho Cabral reached São Miguel in 1434. The official settlement of the islands began in 1449. Some historians believe the Azores Islands were already known, although not settled, a century before the Portuguese colonization. This idea is based on a map dated to 1339, where the islands Corvo and São Miguel were already present, though with different names. However, our recent paleoecological study of the sediments of Lake Azul, in the caldera of Sete Cidades, is changing this view.

In order to reconstruct the vegetation and landscape changes occurred in the island and their potential environmental drivers, we studied palynologically a short sediment core (150 cm) representing the last 700 years. The largest shift observed was the disappearance of the original and unique forests called laurisilvas coinciding with the official colonization of the island (1449 onwards). The present vegetation of São Miguel is mostly anthropogenic and the modern forests are dominated by naturalized trees brought from Japan, Australia and the Mediterranean region.


It is supposed that the sediments representing pre-colonization times should be devoid of indicators of human presence. However, to our surprise, we found consistent occurrence of rye pollen together with spores from coprophilous fungi characteristic of the feces of domestic animals, which was interpreted as evidence for cereal cultivation and livestock farming around the lake. The small amount of these indicators and the continuity of the laurisilvas suggest that human populations were small and unable to produce significant landscape transformations. It is possible that these human communities were temporary and their presence intermittent, but their sedimentary imprint is uninterrupted between 1290 and the Portuguese colonization.

The early settlers reached the island just before the last known volcanic eruption occurred by 1280. It is not known whether or not the island was inhabited before this volcanic eruption, a question that should be resolved with future studies.


Rull, V., Lara, A., Rubio-Inglés, M.J., Sáez, A., Giralt, S., Gonçalves, V., Raposeiro, P., Hernández, A., Sánchez-López, G., Vázquez-Loureiro, D., Bao, R., Masqué, P. & Sáez, A. 2017. Vegetation and landscape dynamics under natural and anthropogenic forcing on the Azores Islands: a 700-year pollen record from the São Miguel Island. Quaternary Science Reviews, 159: 155-168.

See also: The three dimensions of human impact on island vegetation

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Posted in Research papers

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