Ecological and cultural values of shrines and pilgrimage sites in Central Italy

Authors and Affiliations: 

Fabrizio Frascaroli, Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, University of Zurich

Shonil Bhagwat, The Open University and the University of Oxford, UK


Sacred natural sites have been defined as areas of land or water holding spiritual significance for specific communities (1). Sacred natural sites around the world have been proven to play a fundamental role for the conservation of biocultural diversity (2). Such a relation, however, has not yet received equal attention in Western countries, and especially in the context of Christian traditions.

In this contribution, we investigate the conservation value of a sample of thirty Catholic shrines in Central Italy. Shrines are sacred sites often located in remote settings and linked to the phenomenon of pilgrimage, i.e. the periodic movement of people driven by spiritual purposes (3,4). The shrines in our study are related to different strands of Roman Catholicism, but often conserve memories of pre-Christian heritages in the form of surviving rituals and traditions. Further, they used to play a crucial role in the organization of the spatial and temporal experience of rural populations.

We demonstrate that the sites in question also stand out for ecological traits compared to neighbouring control sites. In particular, they are associated with larger tree specimens, the occurrence of old-growth forest patches, as well as greater species richness and habitat heterogeneity. At the landscape level, they significantly contribute to overall diversity by hosting a higher number of restricted species and habitat fragments. We relate these characters to traditional management practices, and suggest that these should be taken into more careful consideration, as shrines and sacred sites are included in official protected areas and new management strategies are planned.

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