For decades, scientists believed that outside of ice ages, most of Europe was covered in dense forests before modern humans arrived. However, new research is revealing that the landscape had much more open and semi-open vegetation than conventionally expected.

Textbooks in biology and forestry have long shown Europe as naturally covered by thick forests. The narrative was that our ancestors cleared away the trees, drained swamps, and cultivated moors. This created the grasslands, heaths, and pastures that characterized European cultural landscapes before modern agriculture.

But a study from Aarhus University in Denmark suggests this classic picture is incorrect. Lead researcher Elena Pearce explains that the idea of blanket forest coverage “simply isn’t right.” Her colleague Jens-Christian Svenning adds that nature during the last interglacial period – with a climate similar to today’s but before modern humans – contained great variation. Large amounts of open and semi-open vegetation with shrubs, light-loving trees, and grasses existed alongside high-canopy tree groups.

Ancient pollen samples helped identify which plants grew over 100,000 years ago. Data from across Europe revealed that species unable to thrive in dense forest often dominated. Surprisingly, hazel commonly covered wide areas despite being a shrub that struggles in thick woods.

In the plant world, competition for sunlight is fierce. Taller trees can capture more sun and “win,” absorbing nearly all light in beech forests. This means smaller trees and shrubs like hazel cannot grow under beech canopies. Hazel thrives in open fields and disturbed or burnt forests, tolerating disruption from large animals.

So what maintained Europe’s open landscapes before humans? The researchers estimate 50-75% of the land contained open or semi-open vegetation. This was likely due to now-extinct megaherbivores like woolly rhinos and mammoths that grazed enormous amounts of plant biomass. By controlling tree growth, these large animals kept varied landscapes.

Fossils of dung beetles from the period show landscapes densely populated by megaherbivores rather than dominated by forest fires as some studies suggested. A Polish study of extinct Merck’s rhino fossils even found hazel pollen grains and twigs between its teeth, proving the species browsed shrublands.

These findings challenge conceptions of prehistoric Europe as almost entirely forested. Varied mosaics of woodlands, grasslands, and shrublands benefited from megaherbivores and their impact on vegetation structure.

Reintroducing large herbivores today could help restore biodiversity to natural areas now dominated by dense vegetation. The past suggests these ecosystems require their missing management by megafauna.


Aarhus University | Elena A. Pearce et al., Substantial light woodland and open vegetation characterized the temperate forest biome before Homo sapiens. Sci. Adv.9,eadi9135(2023).DOI:10.1126/sciadv.adi9135

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