The area of the Gargano National Park can be identified with that of the “Palaeolithic Daunia”, one of the most complex structures known in Italy. As described by numerous Latin authors, the promontory of the Gargano had thick extensive woods. The abundance of timber, together with the availability of flint played a fundamental role in helping the Neolithic population.
The villages consisted mainly of small groups of huts, found mainly along the coastline, starting from the banks of Lake Varano as far as Peschici, Vieste and even further south than Mattinata. They were situated in some hollows, which opened in the deep gorges opening on to the Tavoliere plain. The cultural affinities found between the sites in the Gargano and the agricultural villages lead us to believe the former belonged to the same ethnic, cultural group of the plain, from where small nuclei of populations had moved to the promontory.
During the Enolithic period (3rd millennium BC), the villages were small and consisted of huts with their foundations in the ground (Coppa Cardone) or resting on rocky surfaces (Punta Manaccora). During the Bronze Age (2nd millennium BC), models of territorial occupation were established that preferred strategic positions not only for defence purposes, but also for trading within a wide radius. The morphological features of the Gargano area favoured sheep-farming and contributed to the diffusion in this region during the mid Bronze Age of some customs of Proto-Apennine and Apennine cultures.
The entire coastal strip and foothills of the Gargano was seething with both open-air and cave settlements of varied duration. One of the most important of these, Coppa Nevigata, significantly erected a robust stone wall all around to control the port of call along the Mediterranean trading routes.
During the Bronze Age preference was given to sites close to the sea: along the coast, some of the well-known sites include Monte Saraceno and Manaccora; inland on the higher ground there were settlements in Bagni di Varano, Monte Tabor, Monte Civita and various others.
In the Roman era, the ethnic groups corresponded with the varying morphology of the territory: in the north, flat and with outlets to the sea, with possible landing strips, were the Apulians; in the south, with a high coastline and rare, but fertile valleys, were the Dauni. As in previous periods, the entire area had few roads, only the sea. The Gargano led down towards the ports on the Adriatic: there were numerous possible landing sites in addition to Uria (Vieste), as testified by Pliny who described the portus Agassus, the portus Garnae and the lacus Pantanus, all places the location of which is uncertain today.
With the exception of the communities of the Merinates and the Matinates, the only urban centre in the entire Gargano were Uria (Vieste), which around the 1st century BC began to be surrounded by villas, and Sipontum, a port and well-organised settlement.
The Greek-Gothic war (535-553) led to the discontinuity and destruction of towns in the Daunia, highlighting a lack of authority by the Roman administration, which created the conditions for a rapid diffusion of Christianity, as proven also by the numerous Paleo-Christian complexes which arose during this period in numerous places on the promontory.
Lorenzo Maiorano, bishop of Siponto, was the person behind the foundation of the sanctuary of San Michele, which encouraged the development of pilgrimage for Saint Michael, as a result of which the Gargano entered into the history of western mediaeval civilisation.
The connection between Benevento, seat of the duchy, and the Gargano, seat of the veneration of Saint Michael, remained constant in this area throughout the Middle Ages and encouraged the religious and economic development of the towns in the Gargano, especially those along the main road which would later be called the Via Sacra Longobardorum.
The recapture of the Gargano by the Byzantine Empire at the end of the 9th century and the administrative weakness that followed the conflict facilitated frequent raids by the Saracens and Slavs along the Adriatic coast. The indigenous populations settled inland and created cave settlements, some of which are still visible in the historic centres of Peschici (the District of Caves at the entrance to the town), of Vico del Gargano (Casale, Civita and Terra) and Monte Sant’Angelo (Junno District).
Under Norman rule, all of Puglia flourished. Relative political stability set the basis for a cultural, economic and social rebirth, facilitated by the Norman attitude towards autonomous governments and the privileges granted to the expanding urban classes. The Gargano was to actively take part in the cultural rebirth of Puglia, seen in the construction of churches, palaces and castles. Emblematic examples are the churches of Santa Maria and San Leonardo in Siponto, the cathedrals of Vieste, the Abbey of Santa Maria di Tremiti, the Church of Santa Maria di Monte Devia in San Nicandro Garganico, the Abbey of Calena in Peschici, the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Tumba and the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Monte Sant’Angelo, all featuring a new, autonomous, and innovative artistic language compared to Byzantine art that prepared the foundations for the diffusion of Romanesque art in Puglia.
Under the rule of the Swabians, the urban landscape changed dramatically across the entire region, passing under Frederick II and his son, Manfredi, from the “civilisation of cathedrals” to a civilisation of castles. In the Gargano, Manfredi strengthened the castrum of Monte Sant’Angelo and built castles in Vico del Gargano, Vieste, Carpino, San Nicandro Garganico, and Apricena. Above all, in 1256, he erected a proper city, Manfredonia, after Siponto had been destroyed by an earthquake.
Under the Angevins and Aragons, the distinguishing cultural features were lost and infeudation became increasingly entrenched to give rise to a massive reorganisation of cereal production and husbandry farms. This process of ruralisation later became a distinguishing feature of the entire economic and social development. The introduction of the Customs House for sheep, by Ferdinand I of Aragona determined the complete abandonment of all the lands of the Capitanata, which was deprived of a rich economic heritage, and only used now as a land of pasture and transit for the flocks from Molise and Abruzzo, to become a grazing area. All this caused the disappearance between the 14th and 15th century of numerous rural villages and the phenomenon, still present today, of centralisation in urban towns. The territory was marked by a tight network of sheep tracks for the transit of cattle, with resting posts, field and sheep farms, as well as the typical, famous enclosures known as “jazzi”.
The years between the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th century were marked by raids by the Turks and by the massacres at Vieste (1554) and Manfredonia, which was completely destroyed in 1620. Subsequently, during the reign of Ferdinand the Catholic, numerous defence towers were built along the coast, many of which are still visible today.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the territory was transformed yet again with the review of the land registries and the division of the properties. The initiative did not give the results hoped for due to the strenuous resistance of the local nobles, large landowners and the clergy. The need for land, however, was strong and determined the start of a long process of impoverishment of the woodland and forest heritage of the Gargano.