Chapter 1 . Lesson 1

From Prehistory to Antiquity: Myths and History of Forests

Myths and realities of an original forest

Most mythologies hold the idea of an 'original forest'. A supposed "primary", "virgin" and "wild" forest that would have preceded mankind.

However, science proves a quite different reality!

Carbon 14 dating, electronic paramagnetic resonance and dendrochronology challenge the myth of a forest-covered Earth.

Did our ancestor climb down from trees?

Apes' and Humans' common ancestor might have lived in trees, but we don't really have footage of it climbing down from one. An ancestor we do know about, the Cro-Magnon man, lived in areas of steppe and tundra populated by bison, aurochs and reindeer, where there were no trees. He experienced the last ice age, which ended 14,000 to 10,000 years before our era.

He will have known the last ice age, which ended 14,000 to 10,000 years before our era.

Did you know?

The Chauvet Cave's walls bear the oldest cave paintings in France (36,000 B.C.): bears, mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, aurochs, reindeer, felines, horses, bison and megaceros are represented there. These animal species did not live in forests, but in vast open plains. It is assumed that the megaceros, the largest deer of all time, retreated from the continent as the forests advanced from the south, finding refuge in Ireland and Britain before the ice cap melted. Similarly, because its prey disappeared, the Eurasian cave lion died out about 14,000 years before our era.

When the ice retreats, trees forge ahead...

As we know, nature abhors a vacuum. Once the ice cap disappeared, plants and later on trees earned their place in the sun. Of course, the process wasn't instantaneous: it took a couple of millennia! This last ice age was followed by a period of global warming, melting glaciers and increasing humidity.

From 8,000 B.C. to 7,000 B.C. lichen and moss were replaced by birch and pine. These are called pioneer species.

From 6,800 B.C. to 5,500 B.C. hazel trees and mixed oak groves' development was favoured by a warmer and drier period.

As of 2500 B.C. the colder and wetter winters allowed species favoring shade and humidity to take root, such as beech and some conifers (spruces, firs, yews).

Click on the trees to find out more!

8 000 B.C. to 7 000 B.C.

From 8,000 B.C. to 7,000 B.C. lichen and moss were replaced by birch and pine. These are called pioneer species.

6 800 B.C. to 5 500 B.C.

From 6,800 B.C. to 5,500 B.C. hazel trees and mixed oak groves' development was favoured by a warmer and drier period.

From 2 500 B.C.

As of 2500 B.C. the colder and wetter winters allowed species favoring shade and humidity to take root, such as beech and some conifers (spruces, firs, yews).

Here we can speak of natural forests, since mankind had little to no involvement in their development. They still lead a nomadic life of hunting, gathering and fishing, although sedentarization was in progress.

Humans' way of life could have a one-off effect on their ecosystem, but it was a very localized impact. They also went into forests to find their food.

Should we talk of virgin forests or primary forests?

There is no scientific definition of a virgin or primary forest, so these concepts must be handled with care. First, it is impossible to say that a forest is completely devoid of human presence. Even the Amazon forest, seemingly the most inextricable of all, is spattered with traces of very ancient civilizations and is the home of native tribes to this day. If we were to define a primary forest as the first of the forests, one installed before any human intervention, then Cro-Magnon man would have encountered primary forests in Europe. However this 'wild' state did not last long.

From the Neolithic onward, mankind has shaped the landscape

In other words, western forests have never been truly pristine and hardly ever primary.

Indeed, starting from the Neolithic period (Western Europe: between 6,500 and 4,700 B.C. approximately),

human societies modified the forest's environment.

That is to say, as forests spread from southern Europe, human populations cut meadows and fields to establish livestock breeding and agriculture, techniques that slowly came to them from the civilizations of the Fertile Crescent and Mesopotamia.

plant-small-screen

By settling down, human tribes developed agriculture and livestock farming, gradually moulding the environment to their needs.

Once the polished stone axe was developed, it was possible to cut down trees. At the same time, mankind began to prepare the soil before sowing.

Between the 4th and 3rdmillennia B.C. the swing plough was invented.

Taking advantage of areas with low forest cover, men extended clearings and meadows, areas that they dedicated to cultivation and grazing.

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Thus, little by little, native plants are replaced by cultivated or weedy varieties.

Adventitious plants

Unseeded plant, often considered a weed

Men introduced cereals, goats, sheep and cattle, among other things.

Although sedentarisation was enabled by the mastery of new techniques, it is worth noting that it was also forcibly brought about by the arrival of forests and global warming. Indeed, as large game moved northwards or simply disappeared, hunter-gatherers had to become farmers so as not to die of starvation.

Changes in climate brought about a radical change in society, but one that took place over several millennia.

Did you know?

Prior to the final establishment of agriculture and livestock farming, there was no domestication of nature. The poverty of European vegetation is due to climatic changes and mountainous relief. It is by no means man-made.

Thus, deforestation and land clearing greatly altered landscapes and ecosystems.

Myth interpretation

Have we misunderstood myths?

Did we misunderstand myths, or did modern reinterpretation make them lose their meaning?

We found that the progression of forests coincided with sedentarization, livestock farming and agriculture.

Paradoxically, when man lived in vast plains, he did not farm. This was because game was abundant, population was small, and the land was often frozen and unsuitable for growing crops. As trees grew, they shaped and fertilized the landscape, providing shade and conserving water, allowing the perennial settlement of populations, livestock and agriculture. This began in Mesopotamia, the Fertile Crescent and the Caucasus regions, before reaching Europe via Greece, the Balkans and Italy.

We found that the progression of forests coincided with sedentarization, livestock farming and agriculture.

Paradoxically, when man lived in vast plains, he did not farm. This was because game was abundant, population was small, and the land was often frozen and unsuitable for growing crops. As trees grew, they shaped and fertilized the landscape, providing shade and conserving water, allowing the perennial settlement of populations, livestock and agriculture. This began in Mesopotamia, the Fertile Crescent and the Caucasus regions, before reaching Europe via Greece, the Balkans and Italy.

Did you know?

The vine is a liana plant, and it is estimated that the first vinification took place in the Caucasus region between Georgia and Armenia. It is in Georgia, by the Black Sea, that the greatest variety of grape varieties has been found. Residues of winemaking have been found in this region, dating back to 6 000 B.C.

gifsquirrel image

Forests led to a retreat of the wilderness. Fierce beasts gradually retreated and civilization, as we define it today, was able to emerge.

Yet the Romans, whose world view and dichotomisation of 'civilization versus barbarism' still lingers to this day , approached things quite differently. Perhaps the original story was lost when they retroactively reshaped History and defined culture as that which is opposed to the forest.

What do the myths say?

Myths assume an idealized period of harmony between man and his natural environment. They're committed to describing the upheaval that sedentarisation was for mankind, as well as its effect on nature.

From the Neolithic period, man became a co-creator of nature. He no longer just picked fruit: he cultivated it, made it bear fruits.

Myths assume an idealized period of harmony between man and his natural environment. They're committed to describing the upheaval that sedentarisation was for mankind, as well as its effect on nature.

From the Neolithic period, man became a co-creator of nature. He no longer just picked fruit: he cultivated it, made it bear fruits.

Myths tell us of men's fear of facing their own actions, something which seems unreasonable to them.

They feared divine retaliation. In most myths, we find this feeling of men's guilt towards Mother Nature, which they subject to their ambitions.

Many faiths perceive the tree as a unique bond between men and gods because it is rooted in the earth, rises from it and has a crown that shoots up into the heavens.

The myth of the tree of life or of the World Tree, which is found in many cultures, highlights the ambiguous relationship between humans and their natural environment. The tree is worshipped or revered as a deity that can heal people of their ills, ills often attributed to their actions against nature. If men suffer from illnesses, it is because nature punishes them. And if nature suffers, men suffer too. Archaic myths reveal a very strong and even sacred link between the life of trees and that of men. This proves that Neolithic man was aware of the life he owed to nature, especially to the trees that gave him the opportunity to cultivate the land.

The Romans themselves feared attacking trees, which all ancient peoples divinized in one way or another.

And yet, it is to the Romans that we owe the image of the forest as a temple of barbarism and savagery.

What we owe the Romans

We owe Romans the conflict between forest and civilization, symbolizing the opposition between savage and civilized.

Silva, in Latin, means wild, and it is this root that many languages have relied on to construct the words defining activities relating to the forest: "sylviculture", "sylvester"… Among the Romans, the forest ("silva") is opposed to the "respublica", that is to say 'public affairs', the place of human laws. For them, the woods delineated the edge of the civilized world, one governed by the laws of the Republic.

Civilized man lived in the city and barbarians in the woods. Civilized people are therefore sedentary men who know how to cultivate and transform nature's products. This conceptualisation erased the fact that civilization was made possible by forests' existence. It is understandable that this vision of the world, theorized at the beginning of our era, several thousand years after the beginnings of sedentarization, would have forgotten the profound causes of this historical change. Myths reveal some things, and hide others.

Roman civilization built itself on a triad of processed foods: bread, oil and wine.

The Roman Empire set out to develop cities, fields for cultivation and meadows, all at the expense of forests. Some peoples, notably the Gauls, worked wood very well to make tools, furniture, houses, means of transport and weapons, which the Romans would later acquire and perfect.

Deforestation had been very extensive around settlements, due to woodworking, agriculture and animal husbandry, as well as the extraction of minerals (iron ore in particular).

Wooden products then became fully integrated in ancient societies' economic system.

wood
wood

Did you know?

And yet, contrary to popular belief, in Roman times, Western Europe was not covered with wood.

This is what we invite you to discover in lesson 2.

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