To explore the pre-history of the European forest, we have to travel back almost 11,000 years in history. We will learn a little bit about the process as well as when and how the European forest slowly revived after a very long time when Europe suffered from several periods of glaciation. That was a time when Europe, due to this extreme climate, was almost tree-less.
Effects of the Ice age
All these unusual climatic extremes during a number of extensive ice ages occurred in a period which started already four million years ago. That was during the geological period named Pliocene and partially also during the following geological period, the Pleistocene, that followed.
In that time, the average temperature in Central Europe fell by up to 12 °C. The snowline in the Alps dropped from 2,600 metres to 1,400 metres. Glaciers massively expanded and covered the entire Alps. Smaller glaciers covered the highest part of the Carpathian. Between the Alps, the Carpathian glaciers and the Scandinavian continental ice belt, with a thickness of up to 3,000 m, a relatively narrow, ice-free belt was left.
Europe was tree-less in this period, except for islands of partially forested areas in which fragments of former vegetation survived. In many places, the tundra was dominant, with islands of frost-resistant birch and pine. Small resistant Dryas dominated the land during this period.
The last ice ages ended, in central Europe, around 12,000 years ago. That was the moment when European forests begun slowly to recover.
Important period in pre-history of the European forest
11,000 years ago was a time when Europe was still almost without forest, and fragments of continental glaciers still covered large areas.
That was a time when random islands of forest which survived the whole period of glaciation slowly started to recover. These fragments of the pre-historical European forest survived mostly in warmer and ice-free corners, down to the south of Europe. The land of Europe, covered for a long time by glaciers, slowly, step by step, revived. Gradually the forest coverage in Europe expanded. This slow process took almost 3000 years.
8000 BP: Europe was already heavily covered by dense forest and became a very forested continent. Forest coverage gradually reached its maximum in a period between 9000 BP and 6000 BP years.
6000 BP, European forest coverage slowly decreased and begun to be more and more fragmented. Reasons for that were not only spontaneous natural disturbances but also more and more often disturbances made by the Neolithic man.
Impact on forest at the beginning of Neolithic era
From the end of the last Ice Age to the beginning of the Neolithic period (from 4300 BC to 2000 BC), the impact of humans on the European forest was minimal. Only with the slowly developing beginning of the Neolithic agriculture, the forests were cleared and fragmented by humans, and man’s influence began to increase slowly.
Forest and agriculture
In the following one thousand years, more than half of Europe’s central and northern forests disappeared. The main reason for this process was an increased demand for agricultural land and the use of wood fuel. These men made activities has been the leading reason of forest loss in the region.
Forest research in Central Europe confirmed that particularly since 4000 BC forests declined progressively. The result of this slow but long-term process was less forest and a more open land-cover mosaic. Since then, the forest loss has been a dominant feature of Europe’s landscape ecology.
The First Agricultural Revolution
Fewer forests and a more open mosaic of land cover led to the first agricultural revolution. This vast transition has been confirmed in the history of many human cultures. The lifestyle characterized by hunting and gathering gradually changed to agriculture and permanent settlement. This shift allowed the existence of an increasingly large population.
This shift also allowed people to observe and experiment with plants and learn how they grow and develop. This new knowledge gradually led to the domestication of plants for crops.
Pre-history forests were one huge wilderness. All processes here took place spontaneously and, as a rule, without human influence. Somewhere there, the foundations of wild forest were created, which in later years modern people named primeval forests, wildernesses. They elaborated complex quality standards and verification processes.