Dark ages and dark areas: global deforestation in the deep past

Dark ages and dark areas: global deforestation in the deep past

Dark ages and dark areas: global deforestation in the deep past

Michael Williams

Journal of Historical Geography, 26, 1 (2000) 28–46


Deforestation is a major earth transforming process but knowledge of what occurred in the ‘deep’ past, before c. 1500, is obscure and characterized by ‘dark ages in time and dark areas in space’. Increasingly, however, modern scholarship, in a variety of disciplines, has been able to throw light on the gloom of the past, particularly in the northern, temperate world. The European Neolithic forest dwellers constituted a more stable, sedentary society and diversified economy than thought up to now, and early human impacts on forests of North America and those of the tropical world were immense. The Classical era is characterised by vastly more detail than hitherto, par- ticularly with regard to trade and metal smelting. A plethora of studies has revealed the motivation, extent and nature of clearing during the spectacular clearing episode of the High Middle Ages. With the exception of the iron and steel industry during the Northern Sung, clearing in ‘Medieval’ China remains opaque.

In the history of the human transformation of the earth, one of the key processes must be deforestation. Over 40 years ago, H. C. Darby suggested that “[p]robably the most important single factor that has changed the European landscape (and many other landscapes also) is the clearing of the woodland” and he may well have been right. Indeed, perhaps more of the earth’s surface has been affected by this process than by any other single resource-converting activity. And yet for all its widespread geographical and historical importance and magnitude, there is much about deforestation that is not known. It may be about as old as the human occupation of the earth itself, controlled fire being perhaps co-terminous with the emergence of Homo erectus some half a million years ago, but there are enormous gaps in our knowledge of where and when the process took place, and equally large problems of interpretation of evidence. Deforestation is characterised by ‘dark ages in time and dark areas in space’, especially in what may be termed the ‘deep’ past, before c. 1500. Even today, for all the outpouring of literature on tropical deforestation, the process is surrounded by much debate, un- certainty, confusion, and even obscurity. If that is true about the present then how much more so must it be about the past?

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