Ludas-halom mound has the largest number of toponyms and holds grassland vegetation with high
naturalness degree.
Photo credit: Ádám Bede.

By Balázs Deák, Orsolya Valkó, Ádám Bede, and Zoltán Rádai.

Read the full paper here.

Giving a name is a fundamental way of recognizing and identifying a place. Place names (toponyms) are an important part of cultural diversity and reflect the cultural importance of a place. Little is known about whether the diversity of toponyms (ie the number of names given to a specific place) has an influence on human-nature relationships and the decisions of humans on how to use certain parts of the landscape. To investigate this question, we combined approaches from social sciences and ecology in a comprehensive multidisciplinary survey of 1,521 cultural landscape features in Hungary.

The landscape features studied were ancient millennia-old burial earthen mounds built by nomadic steppic tribes. Today the mounds often hold the last remnants of grassland vegetation and provide safe havens for grassland specialist plant and animal species in the intensively used agricultural landscapes of Eurasia. In our research, we compiled a comprehensive database of the mounds in the 5,150 km2-sized study region and by using various written sources, we collected all toponyms of the mounds recorded since the 18th century. We also visited all the mounds in a field survey and evaluated the naturalness degree of their vegetation, which ranged from favorable (covered by grasslands of high conservation value) to degraded (covered by degraded non-crop vegetation), transformed (ploughed), and destroyed.

We found that despite the intensive landscape transformation in the region, and independently of topographical factors (ie height of the mound, distance from the nearest settlement), a higher number of toponyms per mound was associated with a higher degree of naturalness of the vegetation. This result is especially interesting, as in the studied intensively used agricultural landscape, cultural recognition of the mounds has eroded considerably in the past centuries, but its effect is still noticeable. We believe that revitalizing public recognition of place names could enable effective and meaningful communication about cultural ties to particular landscape elements. In a broader sense, our results highlight that reestablishment of the lost cultural connections between people and nature can contribute to reversing the deterioration.